hristopher Jones’s road to biomedical startup success did not quite unfold with machine-like precision. Sure, he was an engineering prodigy and is a natural entrepreneur, and the company that he co-founded, HD LifeSciences, makes implants for spinal fusion surgery.
Innovative, yes. High tech, absolutely—HD LifeSciences’ breakthrough implants combine the best aspects of the most common traditionally used materials, plastic and titanium. But they’re not robotic, and for Jones, who for the longest time envisioned a future full of mechanical motion, that marks a significant departure.
Jones arrived at Illinois Institute of Technology in 2003 as a robotics wunderkind who had already filed for engineering patents as a Detroit teen and competed for national robotics prizes in front of huge crowds. On campus, he quickly lived up to that reputation, forming a student robotics club that is still in existence. But just before obtaining his undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering in 2007, Jones changed career paths.
“I had always wanted to build robots ’cause I thought they were so cool, but it slowly dawned on me that just building them to put on an assembly line wasn’t going to be satisfying,” he recalls.
After graduation he and his father moved all of his belongings back to Michigan, where Jones planned to sift through his career prospects. There was an offer from Boeing and even one from the Central Intelligence Agency, but Jones was not inspired by either option. Instead, he kept coming back to a conversation he’d had on campus with a member of Illinois Tech’s biomedical engineering faculty, inviting him to pursue graduate study in that field.
Two months later, Jones and his father moved all of his stuff right back to Chicago.
“I think my dad was a little frustrated,” says Jones.
“I had always wanted to build robots ’cause I thought they were so cool, but it slowly dawned on me that just building them to put on an assembly line wasn’t going to be satisfying.”
The move paid off as Jones spent nearly seven years working in the lab of Derek Kamper, who was attempting to build a next-generation exoskeleton to improve hand biomechanics rehabilitation following stroke. Jones learned to translate his engineering expertise to the biomedical field, and soon after completing his Ph.D. in 2014 (conferred from both Illinois Tech and the University of Chicago through a joint program), he moved to Boston to work for SpineFrontier, a company that makes implants and instruments for spinal surgery.
There he met his two future HD LifeSciences co-founders. The three of them were technical aces, and each had a specialty: one was a natural salesman and the other was a product developer, while Jones excelled at operations and entrepreneurship—skills he had honed as an Illinois Tech undergraduate, where he founded and ran a wireless company for two years.
The word “launched” may be a startup cliché, but HD LifeSciences genuinely shot out of the gate after its founding in 2016, especially given the regulatory hurdles facing med-tech companies: its first prototype quickly earned the trio some seed capital, and less than a year later, one of its implants was used successfully in surgery. The company now has a dozen employees and its products have been used in thousands of surgeries.
Jones’s Illinois Tech mentor isn’t surprised.
“He’s always had an extraordinary entrepreneurial bent that’s enabled him to see the big picture and attack problems from different directions. It is fantastic but not surprising that he helped found a successful startup venture,” says Kamper, who now works under a joint appointment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University.
For Jones, the real breakthrough was finding a career that enabled him to exercise his love of engineering while also feeding his urge to do something with tangible human benefit. It’s on his mind again now, as he ponders his next chapter.
“I continue to be sad that there are fewer robots in my life than there could be,” he says. “But I’ve discovered that whenever I’m in an environment where I’m able to think and be creative and apply technical aptitude of some kind, it’s been pretty rewarding.”
Photos: Scott Murry