Joseph DeSimone is 3-D Printing a Better Mousetrap

Joseph DeSimone. Credit: Carbon

As the old saying goes, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.”

Only in Joe DeSimone’s case, the mousetrap would be 3-D printed.

Polymer chemist DeSimone has made a splash in the tech world with a new device that builds objects from a pool of plastic resin. It’s a method he developed in his longtime post as a chemistry professor at the University of North Carolina, and he’s now taken it to the start-up jungle of Silicon Valley.  

“I love the fact that research, especially academic research, can have an impact on people’s lives and people’s well-being and job creation. I love that utilitarian aspect of what I do,” DeSimone said.

In the process, he’s racked up a long list of accolades. The latest of those is the Heinz Award for Technology, the Economy and Employment, which recognized his work is “positively impacting human life in the areas of health, environment, energy and the economy.”

“He’s an out-of-the box thinker,” said Ji Guo, a former graduate student in DeSimone’s Chapel Hill lab. “He’s always had really novel and great ideas … What he’s doing is using technology people already know and taking it to a new area, a new frontier.”

DeSimone’s work has turned up ways to avoid hazardous perfluorinated chemicals used to produce non-stick coatings—Guo worked with him on that. He also developed new biodegradable nanoparticles to deliver medicines inside the body. The latter work led to the Lemelson-MIT award and helped drive home the importance of chemistry’s practical uses, he said.

The work was funded in part by a grant from the National Cancer Institute—which dispatched a committee to review the process.

Not only did they send fellow academic scientists, but they also sent scientists who were cancer survivors,” he said. “I’ll tell you, there’s nothing more inspiring and motivating for me and my students and post-docs than to have scientific cancer survivors talking to you about your work. The twinkle in their eye of hope is so inspiring and addicting that we really went into high gear.”

DeSimone’s interest in chemistry began in high school, in the Philadelphia suburbs, when he suspected his teacher “didn’t know what he was talking about” during a discussion of pH. He went home and looked up the subject in an encyclopedia—and the next day, he helped explain the subject to the rest of the class.

“I got a real juice out of being able to explain the topic and helping people understand it, including the teacher,” he said.

After high school, he commuted to nearby Ursinus College, a small liberal arts school that nonetheless had courses in polymer chemistry. Though he’d started off on a pre-medical track, he “fell in love” with the subject. After graduate school at Virginia Tech, he joined the faculty at UNC in 1990.

Guo credits her former adviser for not only imparting the finer points of polymers but helping her hone her collaboration and communication skills.

“It’s a very active lab,” said Guo, who now studies the safety of materials used in medical devices at the U.S. Food and Drug Agency. “It’s full of energy. There are a lot of interesting projects. Everybody is very focused on what they’re doing. I think I learned a lot.”

Most recently, he’s developed a novel way of making complex structures with 3-D printers. That’s led to him launching a commercial venture, Carbon, which he’s undertaking while on leave from his duties at Chapel Hill.

Carbon’s flagship device uses a technique dubbed “CLIP”—continuous liquid interface process. Rather than building an object up using layers upon layers of plastic, the piece forms from the top down out of a pool of resin sensitive to ultraviolet light.

The image of each layer is beamed in ultraviolet onto the bottom of the resin through an oxygen-permeable window. The light hardens the resin, and the resulting object rises from the fluid in a manner DeSimone compares to the liquid-metal robots in “The Terminator” sci-fi films.

The Heinz Award is the latest in a string of commendations the AAAS fellow has racked up in his career. He also received the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize in 2008 for developing a new way to make biodegradable plastic nanoparticles that can help deliver medicine in the human body. And in 2016, President Barack Obama awarded him the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

“When I first saw him, he said, ‘Dr. DeSimone, thank you for all you do for our nation,’” DeSimone recounted. “I was just like, ‘Are you kidding me? Thank me? Thank you.’ He was such an engaging statesman, such an engaging leader—It was certainly the highlight of my professional career, and to be able to share it with so many was really special.”

At 53, DeSimone is still married to his high-school sweetheart. Their son and daughter are both part of his Carbon venture, where he’s in a new role: CEO.

“It’s eye-opening what it takes to do this,” he said. “It’s been an amazing life experience and it absolutely brings a lot of perspective.” In previous ventures, he served as a board member or consultant, “but never on the field.”

He said his best ideas emerge out of “simple connections” between communities—for instance, between chemists and the computer and mechanical engineers who developed 3-D printing in the first place.

“In many ways, they’re profound in the connections that emerge,” DeSimone said. “But they’re simple in that once the connection is made, it’s almost, in hindsight, ‘Of course.’”