From Aerospace to Surgical Implants

The hip prosthesis that Robert Cohen is helping to develop can mean both better mobility and faster recovery.

When he graduated from Livingston High School, Robert Cohen enrolled at NJIT as a mechanical engineering major with soaring thoughts of work in the aerospace field. He’s now engaged on a very different frontier.

Cohen is developing innovative joint implants as chief technology officer and senior vice president for research and development at Pipeline Biomedical Holdings. Along the arc of his career, he has been awarded over 20 patents and has had numerous peer-reviewed publications.

Cohen’s transition to pioneering technology for the human body began with part-time employment as an undergraduate senior. Professor Michael Pappas ’59, ’64 hired him to help with drafting and detailed engineering for knee, hip and shoulder implants produced by the company that Pappas had co-founded. One of the venture’s innovations was the famed New Jersey Low Contact Stress Knee.

After completing his bachelor’s, Cohen studied for a master’s and taught physics as a graduate assistant, receiving the MS in 1984. Pappas was the advisor for his thesis, a finite element analysis of a hip joint.

Seeking broader experience in the rapidly growing joint-implant industry, Cohen left academia and joined a company founded by alumni Robert Averill ’62, ’66 and Alex Khowaylo ’63. Yet he didn’t sever all connections to NJIT, and in 1987 added an MS in engineering management to his academic credentials.

The company, Osteonics, became a significant orthopedic implant division of Stryker. Cohen advanced rapidly through the ranks to direct a large technical R&D group responsible for the design of joint reconstructive systems. But entrepreneurial opportunity again beckoned, and Cohen rejoined Khowaylo at a start-up, Implex, introducing novel hip and knee implant designs combined with a newly developed biomaterial that encourages bone fixation to the implants.

Success led to acquisition. Implex became part of Zimmer, the world’s largest orthopedic implant company. Cohen served as vice-president and general manager of New Jersey reconstructive implant operations and president of Zimmer’s spinal implant division. However, reluctant to leave New Jersey when his position was to move out of state, Cohen looked closer to home. A very attractive opportunity presented itself in 2007 – to help build another startup, Pipeline Biomedical, in partnership with his former colleague Alex Khowaylo.

Based in Cedar Knolls, New Jersey, their company is developing leading-edge hip and knee prostheses designed for younger, more active patients that require removing less bone for implantation. They are also combining their new generation of implants with robotic bone preparation. The objective is to assist the surgeon in making bone cuts and implant placement as precise as possible for a prosthesis that provides long-term performance.

Pipeline Biomedical continues developing new technologies for joint-replacement surgery. One advance involves coating implants with a pharmaceutical material that can promote bone growth and increase bone density around the implant. Potential benefits include a faster return to daily life for recipients and an increased likelihood of clinical success. This translates into greater patient satisfaction, with less chance of the need for revision surgery at a high cost to the patient and medical facility.

An active member of the NCE Board of Visitors, Cohen has also connected with NJIT to move Pipeline Biomedical’s R&D program forward. The company is making use of a live-cell lab at the NJIT Enterprise Development Center to confirm the safety and efficacy of the innovative coating on their implants.

And where do Cohen and his colleagues plan to manufacture their breakthrough products? In New Jersey, in Morris County, where he says they will take the manufacturing process of metal laser sintering to a new level.

Commenting on the siren song of offshore manufacturing, Cohen says that there are very good reasons to keep the production of sophisticated products such as prosthetic implants much closer. “It’s been my experience that the efficiency and speed with which it’s possible to go from design to a finished product can definitely compensate for higher costs that may be involved. We have the talent and everything else needed to turn a good idea into a high-tech product quickly and profitably.”