Joining the Game: Orthopedist Brings Science, Strategy to Device R&D

January 1, 1999

4 Min Read
Joining the Game: Orthopedist Brings Science, Strategy to Device R&D

Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry Magazine
MDDI Article Index

An MD&DI January 1999 Column


As both an athlete and a researcher in biomechanics, Charles Dillman can personally relate to sports injuries—whether a slipped disk or a torn ligament. His 20 years in orthopedics have focused on sports medicine, culminating in his appointment as group vice president of research and development in Huntersville, NC, for Orthofix International N.V., a company specializing in minimally invasive therapy for bone repair and reconstruction. "My job is to combine the R&D efforts of the four companies that make up Orthofix and essentially make the whole greater than the sum of its parts," Dillman explains. "As I build up the individual technologies of these companies, I'm also looking for synergies among them and trying to introduce new technologies."

This balancing act has given Dillman the opportunity to learn about the business world and develop new skills. Prior to working for Orthofix, Dillman worked mainly as a biomechanics researcher with orthopedic surgeons. Since 1995, he has been professor of surgery at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and has also directed graduate programs on the biomechanics of human performance relating to sports activities at the University of Delaware and the University of Illinois. He was intrigued by the position at Orthofix because it introduced him to the medical device industry, while enabling him to use his background in surgery, and gave him a new perspective on the differences between the business world and the world of academia: "Business is much more organized, and it has good systems and approaches to solving problems. In academia, you select a problem and conduct research, but there's not a lot of thought about the consequences of what you're going to do. In business you've got to analyze the project before you start, defend it, and make sure that it's going to have some return."

Charles Dillman's fascination with the mechanisms of the human body keeps him motivated—in research and business.

Dillman applies this forward-looking approach to his role within the company: "The goal is to manufacture products for today's market but also try to balance this with an eye toward the future. Most companies in my experience have had to favor satisfying immediate needs. Although they're interested in the future, they want to hedge their bets and put everything into the present. The challenge for me is to try and convince the company to invest more resources in the future."

At the same time, Dillman is faced with the challenge of bringing high-impact products to market quickly. Athletes, like the general population, want treatments that allow them to recover as quickly as possible. An avid athlete himself until he injured his back, Dillman can identify with the desire to return to work as quickly as possible. "Being in this field forces you to come up with more-effective treatments that will allow the injured person to return to his or her normal status. But research by its nature is a slow process. The question is how do you choose a product that's going to make an impact and increase sales quickly, as opposed to choosing a product that may take four or five years to develop." Dillman encourages the company to develop relationships with surgeons and researchers at leading universities, so as to explore new ideas and concepts that extend beyond present-day thinking. He is also involved in his own research in shoulder mechanics aimed at helping design better surgical procedures.

Dillman's interest in sports medicine also led to a position as director of science and medicine for the U.S. Olympic Committee, which in turn led to an invitation to serve as a member of the medical commission for the International Olympic Committee. As such, he is in charge of running various educational programs geared toward disseminating information on sports medicine to other countries, especially underdeveloped countries. His work has recently earned him the Olympic Order, the highest award the International Olympic Committee presents, for his outstanding contribution to the world Olympic movement.

With researchers gaining a greater understanding of biological mechanisms and how the body repairs itself, Dillman foresees a move from minimally invasive surgery to noninvasive therapies. Among other advances, he expects a host of new products to more effectively treat complex fractures. For example, Orthofix is currently involved in research on pulsed electromagnetic fields and how they appear to increase blood flow and activate certain cellular growth factors.

Dillman attributes his success in biomechanics research to his keen interest in such topics—inquiries that explore the human body and how it works. "It's so complex and interesting," he relates. "That's what keeps me motivated."

Kassandra S. Kania is assistant editor of MD&DI.

Copyright ©1999 Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry

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