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IUPUI Magazine

Business Issue, Summer 2007

A 50 year 'summer job'

Article by Ric Burrous

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With his white hair, kindly smile, soft-spoken manner and his ever-present glasses, George Stookey doesn't look much like a revolutionary figure. But for five decades, his laboratory work has helped reshape the lives of millions of people, contributing to a world of decreasing cavities and improved oral health.

Not bad for a former IUPUI researcher who stumbled — almost literally — into his life's calling, and is continuing his quest in an entrepreneurial enterprise based on the placid waters of Indianapolis' downtown canal at an age when many of his fellow researchers have hung out the proverbial "on vacation" sign.

From his first days as a graduate assistant to renowned Indiana University dental researcher Joseph Muhler to his current job as head of Therametric Technologies, Inc. (TTI) in IU's high-tech Emerging Technologies Center (ETC) in downtown Indy, Stookey has pursued a career he never envisioned - and wouldn't give up now for any price.

Knocked on right door

His start with Muhler wasn't exactly auspicious, Stookey recalls with a chuckle.

"I'd gotten my degree in chemistry from IU in 1957, and was looking forward to going to dental school, which in those days was in Bloomington," he says. "But I was married, had a child, and needed a summer job until classes began. So I knocked on every door in the building, and behind the last door was Joseph Muhler."

Whether it was chance or an instinct for talent, Muhler - whose research team identified the process that made possible the creation of Crest toothpaste - decided to give the youngster a chance. Fifty years later, Muhler's advice to Stookey to stay in research instead of dental school has proved prophetic.

"He told me I'd do more good for people than 100 dentists if I stuck with research, and I'd have to say he was right," says Stookey, who started as a graduate assistant to Muhler, became a researcher in his own right, then took over leadership of the Oral Health Research Institute (OHRI) for the IU School of Dentistry, where he helped shape another revolution, this one the growth of a dynamic research culture that swept through the campus.

"I was at IUPUI at exactly the right time," says Stookey, one of the world's foremost experts in fluoride pharmacology. "At the institute, I had a chance to meet my counterparts in research in Medicine, Science and Engineering & Technology, and we all realized that we could do some extraordinary things if we just worked together."

He credits retired Chancellor Gerald L. Bepko with creating a "climate of collaboration" that sent successful grant applications skyrocketing, brought in new contributors, helped recruit top-flight research talent, and put IUPUI firmly in the forefront of the life sciences.

"That climate is the reason this campus is growing so rapidly, while other campuses aren't growing at all," Stookey says. "It's a different environment entirely, one that is exciting to researchers."

The former chancellor believes that researchers like Stookey made his vision an easy choice.

Stookey "has been a role model and a leader in helping others shape careers in research and discovery" that the rest of the campus emulated, Bepko says. And retirement hasn't lessened the veteran researcher's impact on the world around him.

"He continues to be a leader in conducting research that is both of interest to the scientific community and that has real-world applications," adds Bepko.

Change is constant

Stookey marvels at the changes he has seen in his career. The number and severity of cavities that used to plague Americans has sharply decreased. The widespread use of fluoride has improved all-around oral health, and technology has completely revamped the tools dentists use to control tooth decay, gum disease and other oral health-related diseases and conditions.

"People forget how far dentistry has come," Stookey says. "As recently as World War II, the U.S. Army had to drop a requirement that prospective soldiers have at least six opposing teeth in order to chew, because not enough men qualified. Now, we've even learned that tooth decay is reversible if caught early enough and treated aggressively."

Now TTI is making contributions of its own under his guidance, whether it's in creating healthy pet treats for cats and dogs (to Stookey, oral health is oral health) or in creating a high-tech dental tool that combines a camera, wireless technology and voice activation, plus compressed air and more, all hooked up to a nearby laptop.

"We already have created an earlier version, but it has wires and requires two people, the dentist and someone to man the computer and follow the dentist's instructions to capture a picture of a tooth to review and compare to earlier versions," Stookey says. "This one will be a one-man operation, and we could have a working prototype this summer."

The high-tech approach "could help a dentist track a potential trouble spot three or four years before it actually becomes a cavity," says Stookey. "A dentist will be able to call up a patient's earlier records, compare them with what he sees now, and determine whether there is a problem, and how to deal with it."

Entrepreneurial success

Stookey, who looks very much like the "distinguished professor emeritus" that IU named him, doesn't seem at first glance to be a likely choice to enjoy entrepreneurial success in the highly competitive world of high-tech health-care companies.

Appearances can be deceiving.

"I was ready to leave university administration behind, but I was still interested in research," says Stookey, who retired from IUPUI in 2001 and bought TTI in 2002 "kind of on a whim." He spent "the next year writing grants" to get the company on firmer footing, acquired several licenses for products he'd helped create at the OHRI, and the company took off.

"To be honest, I've been a little surprised by our growth," Stookey admits, who notes that most companies based at the ETC "have angel investors," while TTI is "entirely funded by grants." His long-standing ties to the National Institutes of Health have helped TTI build momentum - reputation counts for a lot in the world of research, and Stookey has a strong one - as well as Indiana's own eight-year-old 21st Century Research and Technology Fund.

Different kind of life

Stookey enjoys life in the private sector. "I enjoyed my time at IUPUI, and the research work was always fascinating," he says. "And the people I worked with were first-rate. But I was a little tired of the administrative duties I had, and felt it was time for a new direction."

So after running the Oral Health Institute for 19 years, after spending more than a dozen years as associate dean of research for the dental school, and even a short stint as acting dean of the School of Dentistry, Stookey packed his bags and headed for a different challenge.

At TTI, he can run as fast as his creative juices - and those of his cohorts in the company's four laboratories - will allow. He admits that freedom initially "was a little unsettling," as was the ever-present requirement of all private firms: produce or die.

"I learned quickly that it's important to find companies to partner with, using their skills and expertise in areas where you need help," says Stookey, an unabashed cheerleader for the IU Research Technology Center, the organization behind the ETC.

"The IURTC is such a tremendous asset, whether you're like me, a start-up company making its way in the world, or an IUPUI researcher with an idea that their work might be a success in the marketplace," he adds. "The facilities and operations are first-rate, and the cost is reasonable for companies just starting out. But more than that, it's the intangibles. There are all kinds of experts here - mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, software experts - willing to pitch in and help you, because they're not competitors, they're colleagues."

Not surprising for someone who got started in the field the same year (1957) as the old Soviet Union launched its first Sputnik satellite into space, Stookey still loves the collegiality of research.

"I grew up wanting to be a veterinarian, but at that time, Indiana didn't have a school for that," he recalls. "Then I decided to be a dentist, and even though I was working full-time in research at IUPUI, I got three years in. But in the end, my passion for research was what meant the most."

That passion fuels one of his favorite pieces of advice to colleagues and young researchers.

"I always tell the people that they should get their speeding tickets on the way to work, not on their way home," he smiles. "That's when you know you're in the right place!"

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