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USF biomedical engineering Ph.D. Student named to Tampa Bay Business Journal 25 Under 25 list

The Harrahs

Mitchell Harrah (right) and Magdelena Harrah (second from right) take a photo with USF biomedical engineering alum Abby Blocker (third from right) at the Florida Venture Forum Statewide Collegiate Startup Competition, where Blocker won the $5,000 Collegiate Startup prize for a device co-invented with two other USF biomedical engineering students.

By the time he’s 30, USF biomedical engineering Ph.D. student Mitchell Harrah told Tampa Bay Business Journal reporter Lauren Coffey in the journal’s 2021 25 under 25 feature article that he plans to have both his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at USF finished and a solid footing in a career of making disruptive business moves as co-founder of Baldr Medical.

Co-founded with USF electrical engineering Ph.D. student Abdul Safi, Baldr Medical became part of the USF CONNECT Student Innovation Incubator in September of 2020, just a month after its creation. In January of 2021, the company tied for third in the TiE University Global Business Hackathon with Harrah’s sister and USF public relations and advertising undergrad Magdelena Harrah as its chief marketing officer and USF electrical engineering Ph.D. student Sadhu Moka as its chief technology officer.

Later that spring, Baldr Medical was awarded a Frank and Ellen Daveler Entrepreneurship Program scholar award, with Magdelena Harrah selected by a panel of judges as one of five of the 20 participating Florida students to receive an extra $5,000.

Harrah said that the company’s participation in the student incubator program and the TiE University competition have already led to ongoing technology projects that he and Safi plan to pursue for the foreseeable future.

Harrah said that the company’s participation in the student incubator program and the TiE University competition have already led to ongoing technology projects that he and Safi plan to pursue for the foreseeable future.

“If Baldr Medical takes off, I’d love to let it grow and see what it could do,” he said. “We’re always looking for affordable options to let everyone live their best lives. We’ve already seen a thousand other cool projects come our way, and there are so many applications for our imaging technology.”

Harrah started his master’s degree in biomedical engineering the year following the completion of his undergraduate degree at the University of Florida in chemical engineering in 2019. Harrah first viewed engineering as a major that would give him a broad skillset and chose chemical engineering because of how much he enjoyed chemistry in high school.

“It helped me move into my biomedical engineering program at USF,” he said. “When I did my chemical engineering program, one of the requirements was taking one biology course. It was cool to see how everything from your chemical engineering courses was related to the medical field, and I liked working with health systems.”

His first engineering research experiences were laboratory technician and later research technician at a Gainesville-based enzyme and live biotherapeutics research company. Here, he took on a project meant to improve enzyme powder that helps users reduce absorption of oxalate — a compound found naturally in many foods that can cause kidney stones.

While at Captozyme, Harrah already knew that he wanted to complete a Ph.D., and he quickly sought out a chance to join a biomedical research project upon starting his master’s degree at USF. His search brought him USF electrical engineering assistant professor Ashwin Parthasarathy’s TROPICS lab, which specializes in optical methods for monitoring various health problems. He started working on a project there that aims to reduce the costs of the surgical equipment to treat cataract patients, specifically those in rural settings and including developing countries. The project would become the focus of his master’s thesis.

Parthasarathy’s lab was also where he and Safi first met.

“Safi was my mentor on how to survive grad school,” he said. “It was tough moving from research in industry to research in academia and figuring out how differently they work.”

In Spring 2020 toward the start of the pandemic, Harrah found a motivation to capitalize on the time he had after getting ahead in his classes and an assigned research project.

“You can only study for so long before you go crazy,” he said.

At the same time, Safi told Harrah he was interested in applying for that year’s student incubator cohort. Harrah told him he’d be on board to join him in applying, and Baldr Medical began with Safi’s master’s thesis as its first project — minimizing the size of a spectral imaging device for detecting rates of blood flow. Shrinking the machine’s size would allow a large change in price — from around $100,000 to around $100.

Harrah said that his and Safi’s skillsets compliment each other nicely and played a large role in making their company a reality, with Safi excelling in biomedical imaging research and Harrah having a knack for prototyping potential devices.

Evident of the wide variety of biomedical devices, Baldr Medical is also pursuing projects with applications in cosmetology and agriculture. During the TiE University global hackathon, the Baldr Medical team worked in partnership with USF Health Department of Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery Clinical Research Unit Associate Director Dr. Lucia Seminario Vidal to develop an app capable of detecting a pair of relatively rare diseases. Called Stevens-Johnson syndrome and toxic epidermal necrosis, they cause potentially fatal skin peeling and is typically caused by allergic reactions to certain medications or from infections.

Since the competition, the company has also developed another skin-related biomedical imaging device that helps users learn key details about the current condition of their skin, like blood flow and potential damage from makeup or lotions.

The device with agriculture applications aims to create a relatively cheap solution for owners of smaller farms to automate the monitoring of their crops’ wellbeing with drone cameras to optimize crop yields and increase farm profitability.

Safi and Harrah began designing it after learning of the Milken-Motsepe SME AgriTech Competition, which would take participants’ agricultural improvement solutions to small farms in regions of Africa. The two challenged each other to see which one could come up with a better device first.

“It started off as a dare, but we looked into it and realized our imaging device would work well on plants,” Harrah said.

Harrah said he hopes the device could also be used to benefit small farms in the U.S.

“Working to benefit agriculture was one of my big goals back in the day,” he said. “I spent a lot of time growing up in Iowa and working with farming communities there.”

Their device currently has a provisional patent, and the competition for the student innovation incubator program is still ongoing. Harrah said this may lead to Baldr Medical applying for more research grants in the field of agricultural imaging, as it’s an emerging field and piqued the interest of potential investors Harrah mentioned the device to.

His Ph.D. thesis will focus on the creation of an affordable, personalized drug delivery system used to treat patients after cataract surgery. The system is powered by technology from the AMBIR lab of USF electrical engineering professor Sylvia Thomas — Harrah’s co-major professor.

Thomas’ lab specializes in creating polymers at the nanoscale, which can be loaded with pharmaceutical drugs capable of treating cataracts, cancers and other conditions. Over the summer, Harrah built the electrospinning 3D printer that’s capable of printing nanostructures — including a variety of drug delivery devices and electrical devices.

As for staying motivated while progressing through graduate school, research and Baldr Medical projects, Harrah credits the rugby team he joined after moving to Tampa — the Tampa Bay Krewe Rugby Club — for helping him build the confidence he’s needed to pursue his goals in academia with a mindset he learned on the field.

“If I see something that looks like a good opportunity, instead of wondering and discussing and hesitating, I’ll try it out, go for it, and see what it happens,” he said. “If it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, we can take that lesson and learn from it. It’s also about accepting failure and how you get back up from those losses."