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Michael Ramsey named 2020 UNC Chapel Hill’s Inventor of the Year

September 01, 2020

Michael Ramsey, Ph.D. will be recognized as the UNC Inventor of the Year at the 2020 Celebration of Inventorship, which honors UNC-Chapel Hill researchers for their contributions to inventions and patents.

Story by Shellie Edge, photography, Sarah Daniels, Innovate Carolina
To a young standout student who grew up on a farm in rural Ohio, faced an uncertain higher educational path and was once enamored with the notion of earning just one patent, the  future reality of receiving 165 of them – not to mention founding three successful startups – might seem hard to believe. But looking back now, Michael Ramsey, Ph.D. points to the importance of learning to believe – both in himself and what his ideas could make possible – as critical to advancing science and the public good.

Ramsey, who holds the Minnie N. Goldby Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, will be honored as the recipient of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Inventor of the Year Award during the 2020 UNC Celebration of Inventorship on Thursday, Sept. 10. He is also a faculty member in the Department of Applied Physical Sciences and UNC/NCSU Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering.

An ongoing theme throughout Ramsey’s storied career, perseverance has created a pathway for his success as a researcher, innovator and entrepreneur. It’s a trait that will become particularly salient to attendees of the online seminar when they hear Ramsey speak about his work when he receives the award, which is given each year to a UNC-Chapel Hill researcher in recognition of their contributions to inventions and patents. Presented by the UNC Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC), which is part of the Vice Chancellor’s Office for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development, the award honors the recipient’s commitment to the University’s culture of encouraging innovation, disseminating knowledge and promoting entrepreneurship.

“I remember starting out my career hoping I could just get one patent to put on my CV,” says Ramsey.  “Receiving this recognition is an honor, and I appreciate being selected.”

Over the last 30 years, Ramsey’s work has focused on the life sciences industry, using technologies with an origin in microelectronics to build chemical measurement devices. Although his original training and early work began in laser spectroscopy and laser technology, he quickly became interested in using microfabrication tools to make structures to acquire chemical and biochemical information. This eventually led to his work in the miniaturization of chemical measurement technologies.

One secret to his success? With every project or proposal, he aims to find an unmet need and figure out how to develop a product that will meet that need while being useful to society.

“In terms of my research, I want to work on technologies that will have societal benefit,” he says. “And the way to achieve that societal benefit is to envision a product maybe five-to-ten years in the future and develop something that will actually improve people’s lives.”

“Because I had no previous experience in the area of the problem we were trying to solve, it took me two years to raise the funding to start that initial research. I’ve had many proposals turned down and lots of people tell me that I had silly ideas, but you’ve got to believe in your ideas and persevere.”

Michael Ramsey

Ramsey has successfully launched three life science companies. He’s the scientific founder of Caliper Technologies, renamed Caliper Life Sciences and acquired by PerkinElmer for $600 million in 2011. He is also the scientific founder of venture-backed companies 908 Devices, a company developing revolutionary compact mass spectrometry and chemical separations-based products, and Genturi, a genomics tools provider.

Technologies he’s developed are broadly capable and are being employed in forensics and biotech applications. Handheld devices have been created that can detect most variants of fentanyl and other drugs well below their lethal levels to help front line workers combat the opioid crisis. His work has enabled compact analyzer that can be used next to a bioprocess reactor to monitor and control the process with insights never before practical. Through his curiosity and innovative mindset, Ramsey has persevered through challenges that would have discouraged many.

“The first technology I worked on that resulted in patents was a microfabricated fluidic device to perform chemical separations, but I had no experience in either microfabrication or chemical separations,” he says. “Because I had no previous experience in the area of the problem we were trying to solve, it took me two years to raise the funding to start that initial research. I’ve had many proposals turned down and lots of people tell me that I had silly ideas, but you’ve got to believe in your ideas and persevere.”

Ramsey encourages other entrepreneurs and innovators not only to persevere through the tough times but to get as many different perspectives as possible to make their ideas better.

“While at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), there was a more senior person who had expertise in the area of the problem we were trying to solve, and I would talk with him frequently,” he says. “I’d ask, ‘Am I crazy? Is this really a silly idea?’ He’d give me supportive feedback and his opinion if it was an idea worth pursuing and that was very important.”

From his experience at ORNL, Ramsey was able to fine-tune the ways in which he combines teams that will work together most effectively. While many academic research groups typically combine mostly graduate students with a few postdocs, Ramsey prefers to mix up experience levels within the group to further his capabilities.

“I’ve always had staff scientists in my research group, in addition to graduate students and postdocs. These more senior researchers expand the capabilities of the group and allows us to simultaneously work on more diverse project,” he adds.

Even with all his success, Ramsey has no plans of slowing down and is currently working on his fourth startup, Codetta Bio. His career path is one he may not have initially envisioned, but was a path forged by his persistent mindset. He’s come a long way from that first issued patent to list on his CV.

“I grew up on a farm and wasn’t even sure I would go to college,” says Ramsey. “I didn’t even know what graduate school was until a professor brought it up to me and said, ‘I presume, you’re going to graduate school?’ I asked, ‘What’s that?’ I’ve just followed my interest step by step. Translating technology from academic research into the private sector is important, so without the support of the institutions I’ve worked for, that wouldn’t have happened,” he adds.

Ramsey is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, the Optical Society of America, the American Chemical Society and the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. In addition, Ramsey has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers and presented nearly 600 invited, plenary or named lectures. He has 165 issued and 15 pending patents.

Join the 2020 UNC Celebration of Inventorship to hear Ramsey’s remarks about his research and work. The celebration will also recognize all faculty, student and staff inventors from UNC-Chapel Hill who received issued patents during the past year.

All members of the UNC innovation and entrepreneurship community are welcome to register to join the celebration.

Ramsey (right) receives one of several patent plaque awards presented by Provost Bob Blouin during the 2019 Celebration of Inventorship.
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