Chuck Pell

Chief Science Officer, Physcient, Inc.
Durham, NC, United States

About Chuck

Bio

Chuck is inventor, artist, scientist, expressive raconteur and congenital geek most at home in novel situations, figuring things out on the fly. These tendencies have led Chuck to garner experience in surgical robotics, functional morphology, biomechanics, fluid dynamics, miniature robotics, autonomous underwater vehicles, ballistics, maritime communications, entertainment effects, teaching, design (graphic, exhibit and industrial) and filmmaking. Never at rest, he’s had 100 shows of his paintings and sculpture, with dozens of papers published in biology, engineering and patents issued or pending. Having raised millions for research and now on his third startup, Chuck has the nagging suspicion he’s become a serial entrepreneur.

Chuck is a Co-Founder and Chief Science Officer at Physcient, Inc. designing the next generation of surgical instruments: hand-held robotic smart tools that sense (and respond) to their environment, which includes the patient and her tissues. Cracking a rib cage with conventional steel tools makes recovery long and painful. In contrast, smart surgical tools smoothly adjust their motion to give the surgeon her best views and give the patient freedom from damage. "It's not the hole that hurts," says Pell. "It's how you make the hole. Change the instrument, not the procedure; stop the damage, reduce the pain, speed recovery. This is months away - not years."

Before Physcient, Chuck was co-founder and Director of Science & Technology of Nekton Research, LLC, a leader in unmanned underwater robots and expendable maritime devices. Nekton developed biomimetic subs, creating the world's fastest, the most maneuverable, the smallest and the simplest underwater robots. Acquired in 2008, it continues innovating as iRobot's Maritime Systems division. Chuck also provided platform technology for Parata Systems, a 500-employee pharmaceutical robotics firm incubated at Nekton that has installed >1,500 high-speed robots at retail sites nationwide. Before Nekton, Chuck co-founded (with Stephen Wainwright) the Duke University Zoology BioDesign Studio where researchers collaborated to build hundreds of physical, working models of organisms. Prior to Duke, Chuck was Director of R&D at Dinamation, a firm that built full-size robotic dinosaurs and hands-on science exhibits for display worldwide. Fascinated by shape, pattern and flow, Chuck also builds boomerangs, paleolithic tools, catapults and kayaks. He serves on Boards, is an avid volunteer at several institutions including the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science, occasionally sleeps, and travels to give exuberant talks. Pell holds an MFA in Sculpture and Painting from the University of Notre Dame and a BFA in Sculpture and Video from Western Michigan University.

Areas of Expertise

Surgical Robotics, Biomechanics, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles, Biomimetics, History of Technology, Fine Arts, Creativity, Hidden Assumptions, Popularizing Science, Boomerangs

An idea worth spreading

Use biomechanics, elegant design, sensors and automation to transform the many thousands of antiquated devices throughout our society into Simple, Smart tools working in concert.

I'm passionate about

Improving everything, savoring the moment, and discovering the stunning ideas that hide Right Under One's "Knows."

Talk to me about

Uncovering and overcoming the Hidden Assumptions (that govern your vision, thoughts and actions) by Pursuing Surprise, in any endeavor.

People don't know I'm good at

Boomerangs, building baidarkas, stage-wand maker, finding four-leaf clovers

My TED story

TEDMED Speaker and peripatetic supporter of Fellow Speakers.

Comments & conversations

143017
Chuck Pell
Posted over 3 years ago
What is the Future of Surgery, given that surgeons resist the costs (financial, training, proficiency) of radical changes in procedures?
Certainly it's possible. The question is likelihood and speed. Surgical teams train until complex procedures are automatic, efficient, effective - and fast. Making these teams adapt isn't a small order - it takes Alpha types and throws them back into school, for months. Put another way, as the top revenue generators for most hospitals, open-heart teams are reluctant to exchange that status for "back-to-square-one" proficiency - and most agree that it takes 100 to 200 procedures to attain and retain proficiency in that single new MIS procedure. And they have to do this for every new procedure. And, new docs cannot skip open procedures - they have to be good at both in case the MIS needs to "convert." The procedures inside the chest are not the issue - the damage done by the 75-year-old (or *centuries* old) instruments to gain access *is.* The chest wall is heavily damaged by the old devices - and that leads to pain and suffering. If, on the other hand, one could gain access without the damage, then many of the benefits touted (but yet to be proven) for MIS would be in-hand - now, without the lengthy training. It's a win-win.
143017
Chuck Pell
Posted over 3 years ago
What is the Future of Surgery, given that surgeons resist the costs (financial, training, proficiency) of radical changes in procedures?
I agree - but the changed behaviors show up ten or twelve years later. There's another approach: improve the outcomes without asking the surgeons to change their procedures. The way I see forward is to put radically improved devices (that are roughly the same sizes and shapes as the old devices) into the hands of the surgeons that are operating every day - and, make them so similar to use, and so easy to learn, that the surgical teams can pick them up and begin using them on day 1. Check this out: http://www.tedmed.com/videos-info?name=Charles_Pell_at_TEDMED_2011&q=updated&year=all
143017
Chuck Pell
Posted over 3 years ago
What is the Future of Surgery, given that surgeons resist the costs (financial, training, proficiency) of radical changes in procedures?
And, prevention is the key to improving almost every condition. That, and early detection. That said, many patients present with well-developed or late-stage conditions, and so require significant surgical intervention. For those millions, we need to upgrade the current surgical kit in ways that highly trained surgical teams can employ *immediately,* with minutes of training, not months. Drop the old steel before lunch, pick up the smart instruments after lunch, and immediately improve patient outcomes - by a mile - that's the near-term goal (18 months to market).
143017
Chuck Pell
Posted over 3 years ago
What is the Future of Surgery, given that surgeons resist the costs (financial, training, proficiency) of radical changes in procedures?
"The first step should call for more transparency on the direct and indirect costs due to surgical consequences such as chronic pain, loss of function and/or quality-of-life. Some of these consequences are accepted by the public and "system" as the norm but it ain't necessarily so." Absolutely. For example, "cheap" steel surgical instruments are not judged by the horrendous, preventable after-effects of their use. Over half of the cost of traditional open-chest surgery, for example, is post-op care, some of which is Recovering From The Damage Caused By Access. MRI-guided ultrasonically generated thermal treatments can sidestep some of these effects (tougher around ribs and their associated steep density gradients and consequent lensing phenomena, but still).
143017
Chuck Pell
Posted over 3 years ago
What is the Future of Surgery, given that surgeons resist the costs (financial, training, proficiency) of radical changes in procedures?
A renowned thoracic surgeon (Flores, expert in VATS) stated from the stage at AATS 2011 that his most important surgical instrument was his finger. Touch isn't a magical thing, it's vital to confirm "ground truth" when faced with video imagery that may or may not be reliable. One must remember that machines are qualitatively and quantitatively far less adaptable than human hands. I believe some early cell-type discrimination and modification (or removal) may be achieved clinically with nanotech (actaully, micro- and meso- tech), but nothing like big steps: removing or implanting an entire heart-lung system. Now, I can see ways where microtech devices can assist (or alone) printing a working human heart in place, but the practical printing of a human heart is >3 years off, and clinally, 10 years off. Until then, millions of people will have their chests cracked open with rib spreaders designed in 1936. We can fix that now, in 2012 or 2013, without waiting for nanotech.
143017
Chuck Pell
Posted over 3 years ago
What is the Future of Surgery, given that surgeons resist the costs (financial, training, proficiency) of radical changes in procedures?
I guess what we're discussing here is the Rate Of Change. "Future" can mean too far to help someone with a diagnosis and a Deadline. I'd like to point out that (for chest surgery) we've had a mix of minimally invasive surgical techniques, VATS (video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery) and robotic (technically, teleoperated) surgery for thirty years, And, that we've published over 10,000 medical papers in the last ten years, And we've spent many billions of dollars in this area to promote minimally invasive surgery, And Yet: MIS + VATS + robotic *combined* accounts for less than 10% of chest surgery! Over 90% of chest surgery is open-chest. Change has stagnated, partly because MIS/VATS/robotic are useful for a few of the possible procedures required in the chest - And, if something goes wrong, one *must* be adept at open surgery anyway.
143017
Chuck Pell
Posted over 3 years ago
Sheila Nirenberg: A prosthetic eye to treat blindness
Understand: Dr. Nirenberg has decoded the visual input signal, and can take a video feed and encode it so the brain can understand and use it. For decades this was a staple of science fiction - Sheila has made it work for real. She is properly cautious when presenting this stunning work because of the momentous, far-reaching consequences, from curing blindness, to enhancing normal vision, to feeding any visual input directly into the brain. It is easily a Nobel-worthy achievement.