Dr. Michael Heller was born with an enthusiasm for science. He knew from an early age that he would become a researcher. In high school, he built fuel cells and created energy from algae for science fair projects–taking home several first-place ribbons.

These days instead of ribbons, Heller has collected more than 45 U.S. patents and formed four start-up companies. Not only is a faculty inventor, Heller is a professor of bioengineering and nanoengineering at UC San Diego. Along with his colleagues, he helped establish the new nano-engineering department at the Jacobs School of Engineering.

Prior to joining the university in 2001, Heller garnered national recognition for his expertise in research, corporate leadership, and entrepreneurship when the Bush and Clinton administrations invited him to serve as a panel member for the National Nanotech Initiative. These panel members provided two assessment reports to the White House on the impact, opportunities, and challenges of this new field of science.

Heller’s circuitous career path began when he completed his postdoc work at Northwestern University in 1976 and was offered a position at Amoco. While mildly curious at first, Heller was enthusiastic when he saw that Amoco was interested in conducting genetic engineering research. The company was an early starter in attempting to convert plants and algae into biofuels. Heller began his new job by investigating methods in which oil could be made from algae. He also explored methods in which food-grade yeast could be made from ethanol in order to provide a new protein source for human consumption.

In 1984, Heller moved to San Diego to join Molecular Biosystems, Incorporated (MBI), where he designed tests that used DNA probes to diagnose cancer, infectious diseases, and genetic diseases. During this time, he was invited as a guest speaker at a DNA conference in New York to speak about his work regarding fluorescent and chemiluminescent resonant energy transfer (FRET) DNA probes. As Heller describes it, “They [the audience] were impressed, but you could tell they didn’t think it would lead to anything. Sometimes I’m early, almost too early.” Within five years, fluorescent DNA probes were the current state-of-the-art and Heller’s work is behind some of the earliest patents filed in this field.

Bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, Heller left MBI to strike out on his own. He and a colleague from the University of Iowa formed a start-up company, Integrated DNA Technologies (IDT), to create antisense therapies. In a DNA double helix, the strand opposite to the mRNA strand is called the antisense strand and antisense therapy interferes with the expression of disease-causing proteins by preventing their genetic code from being properly read. IDT’s novel approach was to find mechanisms that turn these genes on and off in order to treat disease, versus the existing approach of using classical drugs to treat cancer and other diseases.

While the company was successful, Heller always had new ideas forming. He later decided to leave IDT to pursue microarray technology research and envisioned a lab-on-a-chip device that could run multiple tests in parallel. After convincing his wife to relocate back to San Diego, Heller ran his own lab for two years. He describes this time period as, “I knew what I wanted to do and I knew how far I wanted to take it.” And he did just that.

In the early 1990’s, Heller contacted some friends to solicit interest in a new start-up, which resulted in the formation of Nanogen and then later the subsidiary Nanotronics. Always busy, he concurrently held an adjunct appointment at UC San Diego and worked with researchers on various projects. By 2001 he was ready to move into academic research full time.

Today Heller still wears many hats. From 2005 to 2009, he oversaw the research of his graduate student Raj Krishnan and is one of the co-inventors for the resulting start-up Biological Dynamics. Another Heller student, Ben Sullivan, licensed pulsar technology from the university to form the start-up company OcuSense, now known as TearLab. Heller guides his incoming student researchers with the statement, “whatever we do, it has to ultimately be cost-effective. There is a very high performance criteria in the health industry today.”

Looking back, Heller states, “We took lots of chances and I have been very lucky that things always have come out well.”

For more information on Dr. Heller’s work or any UC San Diego invention, please contact the UC San Diego Office of Technology Transfer at invent@ucsd.edu.