- 25 Jun 2022 08:01 AM
Martine Rothblatt: Serial Entrepreneur
This is a sidebar to the Vertiflite article, "Tier 1 Engineering Pioneers Electric e-R44".
Shaping the future is one of Martine Rothblatt’s many talents.
More than 40 years ago, Rothblatt (then known as Martin) took a passionate interest in satellite communications and wrote her senior thesis at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) on international direct-broadcast satellites in 1978.
After earning simultaneous law and MBA degrees, Rothblatt worked as a lawyer representing the broadcast industry and then for physicist and space activist Gerard O’Neill, who founded Geostar Corporation in 1983, with plans to provide vehicle tracking services using Radiodetermination Satellite Service (RDSS) technology to provide location information, similar to GPS.
Rothblatt became CEO of Geostar in 1986 and negotiated the international agreements required for space-based navigation services and made a significant contribution to advancing future direct-to-person satellite radio transmissions.
In 1990, Rothblatt left Geostar to create Sirius Satellite Radio, a subscription-based commercial-free service that broadcasts music and commentary directly to vehicles, and WorldSpace, a global satellite-based radio network. Rottblatt stepped down as Chairman and CEO of what became SiriusXM in 1992, but remained a major shareholder as the company went public in 1994. Not surprisingly, radio station owners and broadcasters were strongly opposed to the idea of new satellite services cutting into their business. Sirius spent a decade lobbying regulators to obtain the necessary licenses and agreements, raising the necessary financing, perfecting its technology, and securing installation deals with major automakers before finally launching its preliminary service in 2002.
In 1994, Rothblatt turned 40 and for the first time publicly identified as transgender, officially changing her legal name from Martin to Martine.
At the same time, Rothblatt’s life focus made a sudden and unexpected pivot when her eight-year-old daughter was diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), a serious, life-threatening disease. Rothblatt’s passionate intellect was immediately redirected to finding a treatment for the rare condition — which ultimately saved her daughter’s life.
After extensive research, Rothblatt discovered a promising drug therapy that had never entered commercial production because of the very small number of people inflicted with PAH. Rothblatt obtained the intellectual property rights and along the way founded United Therapeutics in 1996, which has spent the past 25 years focused on developing novel, life-extending technologies for patients in the areas of lung disease and organ manufacturing. She’s also the author of several books, took part in the Human Genome Project, earned a PhD in medical ethics in 2001, and has received several honorary doctorate degrees.
In 2006, Lung Biotechnology PBC, was established to address the acute national shortage of transplantable lungs and other organs with a variety of technologies that either delay the need for such organs or expand the supply.
In 2014, its subsidiary Lung Bioengineering, Inc., was formed to use a dome-like ex-vivo lung perfusion (EVLP) device (ex vivo means “outside the body”) — first pioneered at Toronto General Hospital in Ontario, Canada — to extend the preservation time of lungs and allow for transplant consideration organs that once would have gone unused.
The company has also been strategically investing in xenotransplantation, which uses the hearts and kidneys of genetically modified pigs in human transplantation and regenerative medicine. This includes creating pig lung scaffolds that can be populated with human stem cells to make a patient-specific organ.
By 2015, Rothblatt recognized that any significant increase in the supply of transplant organs would also stimulate a corresponding demand for aircraft to rapidly deliver manufactured organs to hospital operating rooms.
Rothblatt recognized that a significant increase in the supply of transplant organs would also increase in the number of helicopter flights required to deliver time-sensitive organs to hospital heliports, and believed electric propulsion offered the means to mitigate the increased noise and emissions. It made little sense to contribute to climate change and exacerbate health effects resulting from the release of toxic air pollutants in the course of saving other lives.
“United Therapeutics is dedicated to saving lives, and we refuse to hurt the planet in the process,” says the company website.
Utilizing sustainable vehicles closely aligns with the company’s commitment to environmental sustainability and reducing its carbon footprint, which is also expressed in the construction of the 210,000 ft² (19,500 m²) United Therapeutics Unisphere in Silver Spring, Maryland, as the “largest net zero energy building in the world.”
Thousands of patients die every year waiting for an organ transplant due to the severe shortage of donors, and the time-sensitive supply of compatible and usable organs. United Therapeutics’ moonshot investments in biomedical research and eVTOL aircraft are both aimed at solving this human tragedy.
The Unither Organ Delivery Systems research and development program started a few years ago at Unither Bioelectronics, a subsidiary based in Bromont, Quebec, Canada. In July 2020, the company received a Special Flight Operations Certificate from Transport Canada to flight test an EHang 216 in Quebec. In September 2021, in a proof-of-concept flight, the company transferred donor lungs for transplant between two hospitals in using a small multicopter drone, demonstrating the feasibility of delivering organs with zero carbon footprint aircraft.
Then, after years of quiet effort, on Jan. 7, 2022, the heart of a pig was transplanted into a 57-year-old patient with life-threatening heart disease during an eight-hour operation at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland.
The milestone surgery relied on genetically modified pigs United Therapeutics subsidiary Revivicor designed to provide a supply of organs for people who are unable to receive human organ donations.
The day that a fleet of piloted electric aircraft will start flying transplant organs moved one step closer to reality.
Rothblatt has funded developments by eVTOL pioneers Tier 1, Beta Technologies, EHang, Zenith Altitude and Piasecki Aircraft. Learn more at: "Electric VTOL for Organs on Demand," Vertiflite, March/April 2019.
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