Rutgers graduate student named to Forbes '30 Under 30' list
A Rutgers University graduate student was recently named in the science category of the Forbes "30 Under 30” list after creating his own biotech company, which aids in the diagnosis of diseases.
Michael Johnson, a student at the Graduate School—New Brunswick, said he created his company, Visikol Inc., to allow scientists to view tissues in three dimensions rather than the traditional two-dimensional slide approach, along with co-founders and peers Tom Villani and Nick Crider.
“So, for instance, breast cancer or prostate cancer, types of cancer today that are quite highly misdiagnosed, our tool would allow researchers and clinicians to get more data from those same tissues and improve the process of characterization. By doing that, we hopefully improve outcomes for patients,” Johnson said.
Johnson had his start as a football player for Muhlenberg College, first receiving a dual undergraduate degree in biology and education. Despite his early success, Johnson said his journey as a learning experience was filled with trial and error.
“There wasn’t this grandiose path I wanted to take," Johnson said. "I was always just working really hard, it was definitely a very jagged road.”
Johnson found his passion for research after an internship with NASA, motivating him to pursue research at Rutgers. He said that attending such a small school like Muhlenberg, he was never truly exposed to large research projects, and Rutgers offered a fantastic graduate program and countless resources.
Visikol was not Johnson’s first attempt at finding entrepreneurial success, as he has attempted three other business ventures, one that included visiting Argentina to aid in the process of wastewater treatment and another that tried to find an easier way for pet-owners to compare and research veterinarians.
Johnson said the key to establishing a successful company comes down to three vital aspects: A good idea, a profitable business plan and most importantly, the team involved.
“All of my businesses failed because one of those reasons — either the idea wasn’t financially viable, the business didn’t really work, or the team didn’t work well. Those three things, but the team is most important,” Johnson said. “When it’s 2 o'clock in the morning, you need to have a good team you can call in the middle of the night to help you out. I definitely have a great team.”
Johnson said that one of the greatest obstacles in establishing Visikol was the lack of confidence initial investors and the community had in him because he was a young entrepreneur attempting to start a biotechnology company.
“A start-up in the biotech space is really hard for a young person. If you are starting a tech company, like the next Facebook, it’s really easy to get that money. I would actually be considered an old man in the tech space,” Johnson said.
Researchers do not usually take their younger peers seriously unless they have already published articles, he said. Usually, only older scientists are given grant money to focus on original work.
Johnson said that the University was very helpful in the long, tedious process of beginning a new company. Rutgers actually connected the Visikol team with their initial venture capital foundation to get the enterprise off the ground.
Visikol's tool has been used in projects ranging from studying the brains of owls to more closely looking at placenta tissue, Johnson said.
“The placenta tells you everything about the health of the mother and the child, so what we are trying to do is look at the placenta in 3D using our tool and potentially create a prognostic to help the mother and child ahead of time,” Johnson said.
He said he was actually taken by surprise when he first heard the news that he had made Forbes' "30 under 30” list since there was no prior notification that he would be featured.
“It was a very long process, there’s a whole bunch of people that reach out to you and ask you questions about this packet that you must fill out. It’s all about your background, what you are working on, and your accomplishments," Johnson said. "Throughout the process they never really give you any feedback, and then all of a sudden they send out the list. It’s a very climatic experience."
Arend Jan Both, Johnson’s academic advisor at Rutgers, said that Johnson making the Forbes list comes as no surprise.
“I see a great future for Michael. As the cliché goes, he will be successful in whatever he chooses to do. He has already been exposed to a great many valuable experiences that will help him decide his own path. I hope he will think fondly one day of his time as a graduate student and remember that some of his accomplishments started at Rutgers,” Both said in an email.
Marissa Scognamiglio is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.