• JoJo

A Sit-Down with Doug Weber

Sitting down to interview Doug Weber in Berlin’s CityCube during the IEEE EMBC conference felt like a formality. Formality and Doug are not familiar bedfellows. Doug seems to me like the Arnold Palmer of Neurotech: he’s accomplished, recognized, and goes out of his way to help bolster the field and the people of our community. His roots in midwestern Wisconsin could be responsible for his approachable nature, or it could just be the fact that he’s always quick with a beaming smile and a welcoming handshake. In the unlikely event that you haven’t met Doug Weber, do yourself a favor and make it a priority.

From my own experience, I don’t recall meeting Doug. That is to say that I don’t recall a time in my career in neurotech that I didn’t know Doug. He’s a lot like Beatles lyrics in that way – you don’t remember learning them, they were just always known. For many of us, we know him within the confines of one or two roles: Doug the professor, DARPA Doug, consultant Doug, Doug the encyclopedia of Neurotech, Doug the Omnipresent. Through the exercise of writing this piece, I’ve been lucky to learn a few more Dougs, but as he told me, “One Doug Weber is enough. I think my kids would agree with that and I know that my wife would.”

Doug’s undergrad experience at Milwaukee School of Engineering didn’t draw him too far from his home in Marytown, but it seems to me that the winters must have finally exacted a toll as he moved to Arizona State University for his PhD in Bioengineering. I’m not so sure what drove him back to the cold, but he meandered back north to the University of Alberta to complete his postdoc with the prodigious Richard B. Stein.

Doug attributes a pivotal moment in his academic career to Dr. Stein. “Dick Stein is certainly a big name in the world of neuroscience and neural engineering – he was doing neural engineering long before that term was even coined – but he was focused on some very practical issues that the rehab engineering community was facing. He developed a device called the foot-drop stimulator for people with stroke. I thought, ‘That’s a cute little device, it has a little stimulator and inertial measurement, oh – that’s just so simple. It’s cool, but I’m going to do something bigger and more complicated and more impactful.’” His recollection comes with the self-deprecating eye roll of a practiced teenager and a look that suggests what a fool Young Weber was. His redemption came quickly, though, as he started to work with Dr. Stein and his patients. “I witnessed firsthand just how much impact even a very simple device could have on a patient’s quality of life. So, that to me, recalibrated all of my expectations for what I would need to do as an engineer to have meaningful impact on patients’ lives. You don’t have to make the ‘Luke Arm’ for people to benefit from your work. Even simple things can matter a lot to patients and their families.”

Luke Skywalker gets a new arm in "The Empire Strikes Back"

While Doug learned to appreciate the beauty and function of simplicity, he has continued to focus on difficult challenges. After his postdoc in Rehab Neuroscience, he picked up and moved to the University of Pittsburgh where, in 2005, he opened his Rehab Neural Engineering Lab as an assistant professor. His work at Pittsburgh spans a range of applications in sensorimotor neuroscience and neuroprosthetics. More specifically, he hopes to broaden our understanding of how sensory inputs to the nervous system affect all aspects of our motor and autonomic function. “In the case of standing and walking, we know that there are sensory inputs in our limbs that control the activity of the muscles in our legs to make sure that we do those things safely and effectively and we can adapt to changes in terrain and environmental conditions,” he said. “It is teasing apart the role of those sensory inputs that are controlling our behavior that is a central interest of mine. Then we can use the knowledge of that sensory motor integration to develop better technologies for restoring function that may have been lost or diminished by spinal cord injury or stroke. It is understanding neuroscience to inform the technology.”

It was at Pittsburgh that he re-connected with former Alberta lab neighbor (and Matlab club member), Dr. Rob Gaunt. “I joined Doug’s lab in 2008, Rob began. “My wife Heather was about six months pregnant with our daughter Keira when we picked up our three-year-old son and moved countries (we are Canadian) and across the continent to Pittsburgh. Doug and his family could not possibly have been more friendly or welcoming when we arrived. We actually lived in Doug’s house for the first week or so as our house was not available to move into yet. When the moving truck arrived, all of Doug’s grad students showed up at my house to help unload the truck and move in. Joost Wagenaar (of Blackfynn), Jim Hokanson (postdoc in Warren Grill’s lab) and Dennis Borbeau (Cleveland VA) were all extremely helpful. I think it is a testament to Doug that they all continue to be active in science today.”

As if Doug’s research ambitions in Pittsburgh weren’t enough, in 2013 he took on the role of program manager as one of the founding members of the Biological Technologies Office (BTO) at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). I asked him what inspired him to accept the position and to take on such a detour from his own research. “That was a difficult decision to make, but in the end, what tipped the scale for me and my family, because they had a vote in that decision as well, was when President Obama announced the BRAIN Initiative in his 2013 State of the Union Address.” He had been in the midst of evaluating the offer at the time. “In that announcement, President Obama highlighted the role that DARPA would play in launching and executing the BRAIN Initiative. I thought, ‘I can’t possibly say no. If my nation was ever going to ask me to do something important, this seemed like the time and the thing to do,’” he said with a signature Doug chuckle.

There is invariably a moment in everyone’s career when a slight panic sets in, and he wonders, "What in the hell have I gotten myself into?" For Doug, he says it was about thirty seconds after he started working at DARPA. “It was pretty intense. The first month was intense. I had been in my own lab for about seven years before pausing my life to take on this new role. I had gone from my role as PI in my lab where I didn’t know everything, but I knew most of what I needed. I could have a conversation with other PIs or with students and I would never feel lost and I would always have something productive to say,” said Doug. “Then I went to DARPA where I was in a microelectronics office and talking to people who were developing high-powered ultrafast communications systems and I felt like I didn’t know anything. I would tell them about the little electrode I was working on and they would smile and think it’s cute. I felt like a first-year grad student all over again, where I didn’t feel like I was cut out for it,” he continued. “But eventually I found my niche and became more comfortable with my role and with the agency, but it was definitely an ‘Oh Crap!’ moment.”

Doug Weber at a conference shortly after the announcement of the HAPTIX program.

“DARPA Hard” apparently isn’t a tag line just for the projects it undertakes, but for its entire modus operandi. “To be fair,” he said “DARPA is a place that prides itself on its intensity and so you need to be ready for that when you go and perhaps I didn’t prepare myself as well as I could have – or should have.”

Doug more than found his footing. Early in his DARPA tenure he launched the HAPTIX Program (yes, he is responsible for that clever acronym) with the lofty goal of having FDA approval for a take-home "Luke Arm" within four years. It’s just over the four-year mark and where are we now? The program is in its final year. Several teams have produced encouraging results outside of the lab and at least two teams are working to obtain IDEs for the "take-home phase." In addition to his responsibility for the HAPTIX program, Doug spearheaded the TNT and ElectRx programs; he came up with the name for TNT but is quick to point out that Renee Wegrzyn named ElectRx.

I’ve always been curious about the proposals that the DARPA program managers receive. There have to be some that are truly outlandish, some that are guaranteed flops, and others still that are the foundation for some of the “Black Mirror” scripts. When dealing with proposals that are, by their very intent, high risk/high reward, how do you narrow the field and select the awardees? Are there missed opportunities? Are there regrets?

“We received a lot of applications and proposals in the four years I spent at DARPA. Most of which had a lot of merit but didn’t necessarily fit the programs I was running. The thing that people don’t often appreciate about DARPA is that it’s a projects agency.” He went on to explain “The ‘P’ in DARPA is ‘Projects’ – so it’s different from the NIH and NSF and other funding agencies. They have a broad mandate to support science and technology research. DARPA funds projects that have a very specific set of capabilities in mind,” he said. “You might have a great idea for some new area of science that you’d like to develop, but if the goals of that work don’t align with the specific objectives of a DARPA program, then it just doesn’t fit. The other thing that people don’t often appreciate or recognize is that DARPA is a relatively small agency – even in comparison to NSF, which has a roughly six- or seven-billion-dollar annual budget. DARPA’s budget is only three billion and they have to do a lot of stuff with that three billion.” Doug continued to emphasize the selection criteria for DARPA projects, “It’s all about aligning the work with the DARPA mission and the projects that have been selected have to support that mission.”

I asked Doug about leaving DARPA. It must have been difficult to start these meaningful programs and then have to walk away. “I really enjoyed the fast pace of things at DARPA. I really enjoyed being able to go out and work with members of the larger community to identify the tough problems that needed a concerted effort to solve; that was a lot of fun,” said Doug. “I do that still in my own lab, but at a much smaller scale. So that part was a little difficult to leave behind. I still feel like I’m working on many of those same problems – just not at that scale.”

If DARPA left an impression on Doug, Doug certainly left an impression on DARPA. In a recent email exchange with Dr. Al Emondi, who assumed responsibility as Program Manager for HAPTIX, he highlighted Doug’s contributions. “Through his work at DARPA, Doug put an important spotlight on the peripheral nervous system that highlighted its value to a number of applications. The programs he and his team launched have substantiated the use of peripheral interfaces for prosthetics, bioelectronic medicine, learning, and potentially beyond,” he explained. “He has been widely influential in the field of neurotechnology, and everyone should be so lucky to share a collaboration with him… or even a single malt from time to time.”

On that last note, Al shared a favorite recollection. “I live on a boat in DC. I had Doug and a few friends over to the boat one evening and after a few single malt samplings of scotch, Doug said that he needed to slow down. He said he felt that the room was moving,” said Al. “It didn’t take long for him to be reminded that he was on a boat… the room is supposed to rock.”

It was Al’s reference to collaboration that caught my attention. Supporting collaborations has been a large part of my own role in the field and I knew from other conversations with and about Doug, that he was a shining example of how to make them work. In his own view, his time at DARPA has influenced the way he now looks at collaborations and consulting for neurotech companies. “I have many active collaborations on my own campus, but on other campuses as well. The network of collaborators that I have has grown since leaving DARPA because my interests have broadened as well. I’ve identified many exciting new opportunities to explore now that I’m back in the lab and have more time to pursue those.

Rob Gaunt had more to say on the subject. “One of the things that has always struck me about Doug is his ability to remember people and to connect people together. He is great at building collaborations and has done a lot of this at Pitt and CMU (Carnegie Mellon University). It’s one of the things that I think made him a great program manager at DARPA.” He continued “Doug nearly always points out research that is being done somewhere else that I have not heard of, or connects dots to other research areas that allow us to think in new or different ways.”

So that’s Doug as a PI, Doug at DARPA, Doug the Collaborator – what about Professor Doug? I was curious to know what he would be like as a teacher and a mentor. The day before our interview at EMBC, Doug’s student, Jordyn Ting, had her first presentation as a grad student. I ran into Doug immediately following her presentation and he was beaming. Not that Doug isn’t usually smiling, but I was treated to one of his face-cracking grins. “She nailed it!” he all but shouted. “I’m a very proud PI! She’s been in the lab less than 12 months and this is the second scientific meeting she has attended. EMBC is her first time presenting at a scientific conference.

“She ended up in this massive room full of people and I think I was more nervous than she was. I snapped a picture before she started speaking and she had this big smile on her face and she looked very collected,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘I was never that cool as a first-year grad student – or even a seventh-year grad student,’ It felt great. She was clearly well prepared for the presentation. The material she presented was well received. She had a lot of interest after the talk and into the evening sessions. She had people coming up to her saying they really enjoyed the talk. I was grinning from ear-to-ear. Beaming!”

Doug Weber and Jordyn Ting at EMBC 2019 in Berlin.

Doug’s pride as a mentor is forever burned in my brain. His excitement about the success of others is not unusual; it is one of his trademarks and one of the things that makes him so genuinely accessible. But enthusiasm and caring are not something that a PI can teach – it is not something that you can add to a syllabus and test during an exam. So, what does Doug want his students to learn from him? What are the tools that he hopes he has armed them with before they leave his lab?

“The main thing that students need to leave with is perspective, first and foremost. They need to understand the important problems in the field and what unique solutions they themselves might bring to solve them. We all have to find our niche – the thing that makes us special and uniquely capable,” he continued. “They also need to have some set of skills, techniques, and tools that they can use to solve problems – and the knowledge of how to find solutions when they don’t have something in their toolbox that suits the challenge. Those things boil down to independence. They need to be able to work on their own or with the support of others to identify and solve big problems.”

Not only is Doug a prolific professor, if you look at his Neurotree, which I’m certain has some holes in it, it requires a dizzying amount of scrolling. It’s not just quantity, either. His neuro-progeny could fill a multi-volume textbook. So, where have they all gone? What do they all do?

“My students have gone on to do all sorts of important jobs in neural engineering. Some of them are still at university campuses doing fundamental research and teaching students, others have gone on to start or co-found companies, others work for companies large and small. All of those different areas are important in our community,” he said. “It’s good that my lab is training people to go out and work in all of those difference areas.

“I view the education process as empowering the students to do whatever excites them. It’s not teaching them to do a specific thing, but to teach them to do whatever it is that they want to do – and to have the perspective and the knowledge and the skills to pursue whatever that is.”

What a great guy, right? Salt of the earth, smart, caring, intelligent, giving. But there’s a dark side to Doug Weber. Oh yes, don’t let the smiling façade fool you. He is a swindler of the first degree! I should know. I am one of his victims. It all started with my unabashed love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It has been a lifelong dream to attend a Steelers game at Heinz Field – to see the Black and Gold on a cold Pittsburgh day – to hear Styx’s “Renegade” as the defense takes the field – to sip a frosty Iron City Beer as my team annihilates a division rival. Yes. That is my dream, and Doug Weber knows it. When we discussed my participation in the organizing committee of the Neurotech Entrepreneurs Workshop this December, he promised that the workshop would be in Pittsburgh on a home-game weekend; “I’m in! Sign me up!”

After several meetings with the stellar team that had coalesced, the workshop was moved to… Arizona. While everyone else may be looking forward to a cold-weather reprieve, I am not. But he had me hooked by that point. I was sold on the mission, the team, and the opportunity to be a part of something very cool. It’s already been a great experience. Doug and the team are making an exceptional program to teach scientists and engineers the basics of the business of neurotech. He’s giving students and early career neurotechies a new set of tools to help them realize their entrepreneurial goals. After I had been swindled (yes, I’m still a little bitter), I asked Doug how the Neurotech Entrepreneurs Workshop came about.

“I’m a member of the IEEE BRAIN Working Group,” he started, still cautious of my ire. “As a part of the IEEE group that is involved in supporting the president’s BRAIN initiative, I was asked to create a program or event that involved some engagement with industry. Those were my only marching orders.” Feeling my animosity soften, he continued. “I spent some time thinking about what that might look like, who might be involved, and I thought what might really be useful to do would be something with students that might introduce them to the world of entrepreneurship. In grad school, you’re focused on taking classes and doing research in an academic lab setting; your head is down deep in the science. You’re not in business school, you’re not exposed to the training and networking opportunities that might be essential to pursuing a career in the start-up world. So, to fill that gap, I thought it would be great if we did something to make those initial introductions.”

True to Doug form, the program promises to be a success. The Co-Chairs are stellar (Marco Santello and Pepe Contreras Vidal), the presenters and faculty are outstanding, and of course a bevy of students play a big role in the development, definition, and execution of the event. As of this writing, with three days left to the application deadline, there are more than three times more applicants than slots.

“I think the Workshop will be a unique and important event, one that we will hopefully continue – making it better and better each year,” he said. “We have an incredible line up of speakers. If you’re a student in neuroscience or neural engineering and maybe have dreams or delusions of starting a company or working with a start up in the neurotechnology space, but just don’t have the first clue how you might pursue that, this will be a good event for you. This event will hopefully open peoples’ eyes as to what opportunities might be out there.”

Ok, Doug. I forgive you. The Steelers aren’t moving anywhere and the Iron City will be just as cold another Sunday.

The Weber Lab 2.0 expects to have some papers coming out before the end of the year which will be the first of the post-DARPA era. “It’s taken awhile to get things re-booted,” Doug said. “I’m very excited about the new projects that we’ve been working on, many of which include partnerships with companies. We’re focusing more than ever on technology that can transition into commercial products – hopefully soon.”

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