Alumni Profiles

Nicholas Durr, M.S.E. 2007, PhD 2010

photo of Nicholas Durr

A strong desire to make an impact in healthcare guided Nicholas Durr in his path to UT Austin's Department of Biomedical Engineering and beyond, to founding a startup, and most recently taking an assistant professor position at Johns Hopkins University.

After earning his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and computer science from University of California, Berkeley, he began working in research and development at Nellcor. He helped develop new optical systems to measure physiological parameters.

During this time, his boss gave him a book on biomedical optics that was edited by Professor Emeritus A.J. Welch and authored by many UT Austin researchers: Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Grady Rylander, and Thomas Milner (among others—book is here: Durr’s desire to learn more about science and medicine helped him decide to pursue his doctorate, and the book helped him choose UT Austin. He started at The University of Texas at Austin in the fall of 2004.

During his time at UT, Durr dove into biomedical optics. He worked with Professor Adela Ben-Yakar, building microscopes for noninvasive microscopy of biological signals using fluorescence and gold nanoparticles contrast imaging. The motivation for the project was to ultimately create a technology to find and destroy cancer at its earliest stages by microscopic imaging and ablation of skin tissues.

Before he graduated, Durr met Dr. John Frangioni, who offered him a postdoctoral research position at Harvard Medical School. He took that position, which allowed him to gain clinical exposure. With Frangioni, he continued cancer detection work, this time developing technologies to image cancer at the millimeter size-scale, using lower cost technologies such as LED lights and approved fluorescent agents appropriate for short-term clinical translation.

While at Harvard, Durr came across another postdoctoral fellowship opportunity at MIT, funded through the Spanish government called M+Visión. This fellowship had entrepreneurial aspects to it, which appealed to Durr, and it allowed researchers to come up with and independently develop their own projects.

It was through this fellowship that the idea of PlenOptika, a startup Nick Durr would later co-found, was sparked.

Durr had met another fellow, Daryl Lim, who initiated a project in eye care to address the problem of a global shortage of optometrists. Along with two other M+Visión Fellows, Shivang Dave and Eduardo Lage, they commercialized a solution to this problem through PlenOptika, whose mission is to increase the accessibility to eyecare for all.

Though eyeglasses are widely available and affordable in many low-resource settings (you can buy a pair of prescription eyeglasses for just a few dollars in India, for example), almost a billion people worldwide do not have the eyeglasses they need. The problem is that getting a prescription for eyeglasses requires access to a highly-trained optometrist. Dr. Durr and his colleagues saw an opportunity for a simple system that could accurately measure and output a person’s eyeglass prescription at the push of a button.

“What attracted me to the problem is that a solution would be so impactful. Eyeglass are affordable and provide enormous benefits in quality of life, access to education, and productivity. If we can improve the prescription process, that will have tremendous impact,” Durr said.

The device has been patented and achieved excellent results in nearly 1,000 patients in clinical studies done in Boston, Madrid, and India. They are finalizing the production device to send to their collaborators, then will make necessary changes after that trial period before they introduce their first product.

After being an MIT fellow for three years and working with PlenOptika for one, Durr returned to academia – this time, at Johns Hopkins University Department of Biomedical Engineering. As opposed to working with a startup where he had to focus on only one project, he likes how he can work on multiple projects at the university.

In addition to his own research, he’s also teaching an innovative design class to 100 students. He enjoys being able to mentor students on their own real-world projects and sharing the lessons that he has learned in founding his own company.

“I enjoy working with these students who all have really high potential. They work extremely hard and are passionate about their projects. I help them achieve the impact they’re aiming for,” Durr said.

Though he has long left the University of Texas, Durr said his time at UT helped prepare him for his work outside of the classroom. “UT Austin gave me a good foundation for achieving my goals in clinically impactful innovation,” he said.