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Alumni profile: Bill Peine, Ph.D. '98 – Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

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Bill Peine, Ph.D. ’98
Bill Peine asks himself the same question every time he considers a new project: “Is this innovative?”
That constant drive for new skills, new advancements and new technology has guided Peine throughout his 20-plus years working in surgical robotics. It’s led him to start-ups, a stint in academia, and leadership roles at Medtronic, one of the world’s largest medical technology companies.
“I wanted to be a leader of innovation,” said Peine, Ph.D. ‘98. “A lot of the choices I made, even though I didn’t really realize it as it was going through my career, were about putting tools in my toolbox so I could be that leader of innovation.”
Peine’s passion for robotics goes back decades. He remembers falling in love with them after seeing “Star Wars” as a 7-year-old in Indiana, and by high school he was already building robots and connecting them to his home computer. He majored in electrical engineering at Purdue.
“I bucked the trend, because my grandfather, father, and all of my uncles were mechanical engineers from Purdue, but I saw electronics and computers as the brains behind the magic of robotics,” he said. “And I fell in love with robots and knew I wanted to work with them.”
Were it not for random chance, Peine might never have pursued his Ph.D. in engineering sciences at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Coming off a summer trip through Europe, Peine arrived in Cambridge hoping to check out neighboring MIT. On a whim, he took a few extra stops on the Red Line to look into Harvard’s engineering program.
“Harvard Yard was all trees and people playing Frisbee, and it felt a lot more like Europe,” he said. “I walked into the main office at Pierce Hall, got a brochure, and the first line was ‘Harvard prides itself on multidisciplinary research.’ That just spoke to me. I saw Rob Howe was doing projects in robotics. When I got back, I had a dream of getting my Ph.D. at Harvard. I applied, and thankfully Rob accepted me.”
Howe, Harry Lewis and Marlyn McGrath Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences, became Peine’s Ph.D. advisor. Harvard became Peine’s first foray into surgical robotics, as he began to research concepts such as haptic feedback, tactile sensors and shape displays. He also worked with Dr. John Wain, a thoracic surgeon then at Massachusetts General Hospital, attending numerous surgeries to better understand the emerging market of minimally invasive surgery.
“I love medical devices,” Peine said. “They’re about extending life and making people better. That’s a very powerful mission for me.”
Those early research initiatives turned into some of Peine’s first start-ups. With his labmates he founded Pressure Profile Systems, a company based around the tactile sensor technology developed at SEAS, then applied the same technology to a catheter with a spinoff company, Sierra Scientific. Sierra is now owned by Medtronic, where Peine is senior director for the surgical robotics department.
Turning academic research into one company, which then spun off into another company, became a pattern in Peine’s career.
“If you’re learning, and you’re in a field that’s learning, and you’re in a company that’s pushing, you’re going to enjoy it, and you’re going to get skills from it that allow you to go after the next big idea,” he said.
Peine joined endoVia Medical as a senior research scientist in 2000. It was Peine’s first time developing a surgical robot, and his first time leading a development team as a manager.
“We developed the surgical robot and got it certified within three years, which was a really fast pace,” he said. “What I got out of this was medical device experience, how do you take something all the way through the regulatory process.”
In 2005, Peine returned to Purdue, this time as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. He’d spend his next three years developing surgical robotics and medical technology in an academic setting.
“I loved the teaching and knowledge acquisition,” he said. “I brought a lot of the skills I’d learned from industry into the academic setting, so I made a lot of progress fast. But it was also difficult for me because I wanted to develop products. I wanted to do technology that would truly make an impact in people’s lives.”
Peine eventually took a sabbatical from Purdue to do research and development with a surgical robotics company in South Korea, which gave him a better understanding of the global industry. Additional career choices continued to build Peine’s skill set: He spent more than three years developing hand-held surgical robotics with Cambridge Endoscopic Devices, then another 21 months designing non-surgical medical diagnostic devices with T2 Biosystems.
All that paved the way for Peine to join Medtronic as director of surgeon user interfaces in 2013.
“I’m starting to drive the robotics strategy for Medtronic, which is an exciting opportunity,” Peine said.
When asked if all his career choices were part of a deliberate plan, Peine laughed and described it as “more of a random walk.” Still, it’s easy to connect each of Peine’s decisions, from coming to Harvard 30 years ago to where he is now, to his overall goal of constant innovation.
“I’ve been a researcher, started a company, been an individual contributor, led a project, was a technical lead and became a manager, became a professor, and now I really manage managers,” he said. “My advice is to look for opportunities where you can learn. Go to places that challenge your thinking, with people you can learn from, and technology that pushes boundaries. Always be challenging yourself and strive to become a leader of innovation.”
Matt Goisman | [email protected]
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