From Camper to Inventor: Meet Nicole Black
Before Nicole Black co-founded a company, earned her doctorate in materials science and mechanical engineering at Harvard University, and landed a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 List, she was a Camp Invention® camper.
“I was always a kid who liked doing science experiments in the kitchen and things like that,” Black said in an interview with the National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF). “My mom signed me up for Camp Invention thinking it would be a fun opportunity. The thing I really liked was being able to explain my ideas to others and showing my parents and sister what I made — I remember feeling really proud about that.”
Black shared that she loved Camp Invention’s hands-on activities and the freedom the program gave her to solve problems that were important to her. As a third grader, two big concerns she had involved chores and removing bugs from the house without killing them.
While at camp, she addressed both of these issues by creating a broom attachment that prevented the need to bend down and use a dustpan, and a contraption that trapped bugs so they could be safely moved outside.
“The aspect of invention that’s stuck with me ever since is to be proud of the things you create and share them with the world,” Black said.
Building Leadership Skills
As Black continued her education, she became increasingly interested in science and engineering. Following high school, she enrolled at Boston University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering.
After spending the first two summers of her collegiate career working at research laboratories at Columbia University and Vanderbilt University, she decided to return to her hometown in Michigan and volunteer as a Leadership Intern at two local elementary schools hosting Camp Invention.
“I was interested in finding an opportunity where I could give back and help the next generation,” Black said. “I felt like I had a lot of voice and direction guiding the program, and one thing I really liked about it was working hands-on with the kids, learning all of their own styles, and figuring out what motivated them.”
During her time as a Leadership Intern, Black took on a mentorship role, sharing with campers the types of things she was studying in college and promoting the many opportunities that exist in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. She made a point of sharing with students the fact that engineers work in a variety of fields.
“The challenge in Michigan is that most of the engineers that kids know (myself included), work in the auto industry,” Black said. “So, when kids think of an engineer, they think of cars … and if you don’t really love cars, it can be hard to convince yourself to take that path.”
Pursuing A Desire to Help Others
Citing her experiences with Camp Invention and involvement with her high school’s robotics team, Black became drawn to the field of biomedical engineering. This field allowed her to blend her passion for human health with engineering, problem solving and inventiveness.
“I found the field really appealing because instead of helping just one patient at a time as a medical doctor, you can help potentially millions of patients at once with a new medical device or technology you might develop,” Black said.
During her graduate studies at Harvard University in the field of engineering sciences and in the lab of Professor Jennifer Lewis in the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Black’s desire to help others led her to collaborate with ear, nose, and throat (ENT) surgeons, Dr. Aaron Remenschneider and Dr. Elliott Kozin at Mass Eye and Ear, to help patients suffering from perforated eardrums. She learned that many patients from the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing suffered from chronic perforations, whom Dr. Remenschneider helped treat.
The experience of treating these injuries made Black realize how invasive the procedure was, and she learned that outcomes were not ideal. In fact, at least 20% of patients require revision surgery to repair the eardrum again. Additionally, many patients suffer from poor hearing outcomes because currently used graft materials do not match the circular and radial collagenous architecture that is present in the normal eardrum. Inspired to improve this reality, she began designing a new material that could be 3D-printed to match the architecture of the eardrum. This project would later become the subject of her thesis project at Harvard and the basis of the PhonoGraft™ device.
Black’s interest in developing more effective solutions for ear ailments also led her to co-invent a new type of ear tubes — called PionEar tubes — alongside ENT surgeons Dr. Remenschneider and Dr. Kozin and fellow engineers Dr. Michael Kreder, Dr. Ida Pavlichenko, Professor Joanna Aizenberg, and Haritosh Patel.
Black herself had suffered from many ear infections in childhood. She had ear tubes that were cumbersome, especially with regards to water restrictions as she loved swimming. Additionally, even after they were removed, these tubes led to the development of scar tissue in her eardrums. These formative experiences motivated Black to develop ear tubes that were smaller, less prone to clogging, and better equipped to deliver medicine to the middle ear.
“We ended up coming up with some new designs and slippery materials for these ear tubes that solve challenges not only with fluid drainage but also with cell adhesion,” Black said. “At the end of the day, we were trying to figure out the best designs to minimize the size of ear tubes as much as possible so that when future kids get ear tubes, they are not only effective but also don’t leave permanent scar tissue in their eardrums.”
During her fourth year of graduate school, Black joined Kreder to compete in NIHF’s 2018 Collegiate Inventors Competition® (CIC). The team won first place in the Graduate Division.
“We had a really great time meeting not only the fellow student teams, but also some of the awesome NIHF Inductees like Steve Sasson, the inventor of the digital camera,” Black said. “We were very fortunate to have been awarded first place and [it was] very motivational realizing that these problems are important and that we should keep pushing them.”
Advancing Health Care
Inspired by her graduate thesis research in 3D printing eardrum grafts with proprietary PhonoGraft technology, Black co-founded a company alongside Dr. Remenschneider, Dr. Kozin, and Dr. Lewis. They called the company Beacon Bio, which was acquired by Desktop Metal, Inc. in summer 2021. Black and her team, consisting of Sophia Smith, Moritz Mond, Patrick Holmes, Mischa Jurkiewicz, and Dr. Nicholas Traugutt, then joined Desktop Health, a healthcare division of Desktop Metal, to commercialize this technology.
Michael Jafar, president and CEO of Desktop Health, believes that the PhonoGraft technology has the potential to provide revolutionary, customized health care solutions for millions of patients.
“We believe that this platform may one day offer a groundbreaking solution to the millions of patients impacted by tympanic membrane perforation (TMP),” Jafar said. “PhonoGraft material technology, coupled with our leading biofabrication capabilities, has tremendous potential across a wide range of healthcare applications in soft tissue — from cardiovascular and neuronal grafts to plastic surgery.”
The sale of Beacon Bio earned Black a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Manufacturing & Industry List, and today she leads a team at Desktop Health to further develop the PhonoGraft device and other innovative 3D printed medical devices.
Inspiring the Next Generation
When asked to reflect on her journey from a Camp Invention camper building bug traps to her current position as a successful engineer and entrepreneur, Black expressed gratitude for the opportunities she has had throughout her life that have opened her eyes to what is possible.
“I’m just really grateful for Camp Invention and opportunities that allowed me to discover other pathways,” Black said. “It’s important to tell kids that their voice matters and to encourage them to keep pushing their ideas– because they are important.”
Black’s involvement with NIHF continues to this day, and she remains committed to inspiring children and serving as an example of someone who never gave up on their passion for inventing better solutions. Recently, she wrote a letter to future inventors attending Camp Invention, encouraging them to keep exploring new ideas.
“Having identities is important as a kid and having that word ‘inventor’ become part of your identity, I think, is really important,” Black said. “Having a camp that's specifically focused around that idea is really amazing.”
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