Meng Deng is an assistant professor in Purdue’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, and School of Materials Engineering, and founder of Adipo Therapeutics LLC.
The name “Adipo” refers to things related to fat – Deng’s company is based on his research developing a disruptive nanotherapeutic platform that converts energy-storing white fat to energy-burning brown fat in an effort to provide a safe and effective way to treat diabetes and other obesity-related diseases. When embarking on his entrepreneurial journey, Deng completed the Faculty Entrepreneurial Learning Academy and joined the Foundry where he worked closely with then-Entrepreneur in Residence Wade Lange. Deng founded his company in 2016.
What advice would you give to prospective researchers in your field or entrepreneurs?
I do have several important lessons or advice to share. The first very key point is to dream big and take chances. Life is full of possibilities. For me, I could not have imagined starting up a company, Adipo Therapeutics. I was part of Purdue’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Academy as a faculty member and it was actually that process that really helped me make the decision to found Adipo and move forward with our technology translation.
The second piece of advice I want to share is having good mentors is definitely very key. For me, over the course of my career I had the opportunity to meet and work with so many wonderful people. For example, my PhD advisor and mentor, Dr. Cato T. Laurencin, he’s also a practicing orthopedic surgeon so working with him allowed me to actually see what the translational research is about and the impact it can deliver to patients during my grad studies early on. He taught me how to do good science but most importantly he taught me life is not important excepting the impact that’s had on other people’s lives. That has really motivated me to contribute to society in some form.
The last advice is actually interconnected. I’m trained as an academic. I’m a researcher but the one key lesson I learned from the NSF I-Corps and also my entrepreneurship journey is to get out early and talk to customers as early as possible to validate your technology market fit. Obviously it’s great to have a great platform technology but having that validation from the customers’ perspective is very important before starting a company.
Do you have any special skills or unique talents?
Well, I think I am a normal person [laughs]. I was actually born in China and I came to the United States in 2004 after I graduated from Tsinghua University to pursue my PhD degree in Chemical Engineering at the University of Virginia. During that time I got the opportunity to work with my PhD advisor on developing new materials for bone regeneration and I got to work and meet with different people with different cultures and backgrounds. I really appreciate that past experience which has really taught me how to communicate effectively with people with different backgrounds and perspectives. I think that has been very helpful for me in doing interdisciplinary collaborative research with other people who may not be in an engineering background and has also been crucial in terms of funding and growing Adipo.
What’s something new and exciting that you think should be on our radar?
A good example would be nanotechnology which has really provided enormous opportunities in terms of controlling and manipulating things and materials on the nano scale. Now we can actually engineer nanoparticles that can deliver different therapeutic molecules to a specific cell population in the body. And we can also engineer those therapeutic payloads to be released from the polymer in a time-controlled fashion – in other words we can develop formulations that can release the different payloads at different time windows as desired. So that is really something that is very exciting.
If you could have any 6 people over for a dinner party, living or dead, who would you invite?
I think I’d like to invite my Adipo team. At Adipo we’re developing a proprietary platform of nanoparticles to convert energy-storing white fat into energy-burning brown fat to reduce weight and manage glucose levels. It’s actually a very exciting time for Adipo. We recently had our lab opening at Indiana Biosciences Research Institute and we have a very extensive team with strong experiences in a number of areas. We have Karen Wurster, who is the company CEO; we have Roger Miller on the manufacturing side; we have a newly recruited scientist Sankar Renu working on some of the formulation development; we also have Sumitra Ghate on the regulatory side; we have Matt Sheetz on the pre-clinical and clinical studies; we have Dan Wierda on the toxicology and pre-clinical development; and then we have Mark Kamer on the project management side.
Over the past year or so because of COVID we’ve been meeting regularly through Zoom – I look forward to that day when we have the opportunity to see each other in person and meet and talk about the plan moving forward.
What is something you wish everyone understood about your work?
I’ll try to do it in a simple way. Our work is actually at the interface of different areas including biomaterials, micro/nanoengineering, cell biology and translational medicine. So essentially, we try to understand or learn how the body actually interacts with different materials and then apply that knowledge to engineer biomaterials or biomaterials-based systems to harness our own bodies power to regulate cell function and tissue regeneration.
So in addition to our work converting energy-storing white fat to energy-burning brown fat, we also work on regeneration of musculoskeletal tissues such as skeletal muscle and developing biomaterial scaffolds for regenerative engineering of skeletal muscle.
How do you maintain or recharge your energy?
I think the biggest driver for me is the potential impact of my technology in patients’ lives. That really drives me to do all the things that are on my plate. ‘
Obviously, for recharging I do have a secret recipe: my family. I have my two daughters Shirley and Stella who are my cheerleaders. It’s just fascinating to see them grow every day. I’d like to share a quote from Angela Schwindt: “While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.” I think that really echoes what I do every day.