David J. Ramsay Entrepreneur of the Year

Joseph Scalea

Joseph R. Scalea, MD ’07

School of Medicine
Associate Professor, Department of Surgery

If you talk to Joseph Scalea for 20 minutes about his life’s work, you’ll see why his colleagues in the fields of medicine and business rave about his can-do attitude and high energy. You’ll also understand why he won the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s (UMB) 2020 David J. Ramsay Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

“I’m ecstatic, surprised, and energized about this award,” said Scalea, associate professor in the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s (UMSOM) Department of Surgery and a multi-organ transplant specialist. “I have a lot of energy already, but events like this keep me going. They remind me that the work we’re doing is important, that there are lives to be saved.”

Scalea is rapidly executing his mission to save lives with a four-pronged approach encompassing research, education, clinical activity, and innovation, which all contribute to his game-changing entrepreneurial pursuits. In only four years as a UMSOM faculty member, he has built the largest combined kidney-pancreas program in the United States, generated highly disruptive ideas, and co-founded three startups, including MediGO and MissionGO. The Baltimore-based companies are designed to improve the logistics of the human organ transplant supply chain and provide innovative applications for unmanned aircraft.

These efforts brought national attention and acclaim to UMSOM and the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) in April 2019, when Scalea and his colleagues performed the first transplant of a human organ transported by drone. He was the project leader and one of the surgeons who performed the successful kidney transplant at UMMC.

The drone traveled 3 miles, from near the Living Legacy Foundation to the roof of the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, in about 10 minutes. Scalea described the flight as “one small hop for a drone, one major leap for medicine” as well as “a pioneering breakthrough in transplantation.”

The drone delivery, which was named Invention of the Year at the 2019 Baltimore Technical.ly Awards, was born out of Scalea’s frustration with the challenges associated with organ tracking and shipment. To move an organ to a recipient, the process usually relies on expensive chartered flights or is limited by commercial flight schedules, with organs sometimes being left on a plane or losing viability.

“In some cases, I cannot perform a transplant because logistics prohibits it,” Scalea said. “For example, I may want to move an organ from Florida to Baltimore, but I can’t do that because there are no flights, and then my patient doesn't get a life-saving organ.

“So you either have to charter an extremely expensive flight or you have to wait for a commercial flight,” he added. “But the organs can’t wait because every minute counts for a human organ and a transplant recipient. So we’re trying to save precious time, we’re trying to save costs, and we’re trying to improve quality.”

Teamwork Key to Success

Scalea also saw a need to monitor an organ’s location and health during transport, so he collaborated with medical technology companies to design and build the HOMAL (Human Organ Monitoring and Quality Assurance Apparatus for Long-Distance Travel). The device monitored the organ in flight by measuring temperature, barometric pressure, altitude, vibration, and location.

Collaboration also was critical to the drone flight, delivery, and transplant, which included more than 100 contributors and a partnership among the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS), the University of Maryland, College Park’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, the University of Maryland Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site, the nonprofit Living Legacy Foundation, and others.

“One of my proudest moments was seeing that drone land on the roof of Shock Trauma, not only because it was a technological and a scientific achievement, but because it represented the efforts of more than 100 people,” Scalea said. “The team included aerospace engineers, doctors, surgeons, nurses, transplant administrators, helipad personnel, and more.

“The amount of collaboration that came together through the University of Maryland system was remarkable. It’s the coolest team I’ve ever had the good fortune to work on, and leading that team will be one of the fondest memories of my career.”

Those leadership skills and Scalea’s positive attitude have inspired and impressed UMMS President and CEO Mohan Suntha, MD, MBA, as he’s gotten to know him over the past few years.

“Dr. Scalea’s infectious personality is only matched by his passion to transform health care, and he has demonstrated a sustained focus on driving new and innovative technologies that will impact the fields of surgery and transplantation,” Suntha said. “It’s clear to me that Joe has the potential to make a significant and positive impact on health care outcomes through his commitment to innovation.

Scalea’s advances in transplantation have been disruptive and led to the foundation of several startups. First, he founded Transplant Logistics and Informatics (TLI) in 2018, which aimed to understand and optimize the challenges around organ shipment. TLI was restructured in 2019 to form MissionGO, in collaboration with high-impact investor Scott Plank, formerly of Under Armour, and retired Navy Commander Tony Pucciarella.

MissionGO’s foundation vertically integrated unmanned aircraft shipment of life-critical payloads with optimization of transplant logistics. As MissionGO grew to more than 12 employees, Scalea and his partners spun off MediGO, a separate company that focuses on specific challenges around transplantable organs. Indeed, MediGO, which offers the first-ever comprehensive organ management system, inspired by Scalea’s initial prototype, began generating revenue in September 2020.

“These companies have the potential to save the transplant industry tremendous amounts of resources annually through improved communication,” Suntha said.

Plank, the CEO of MissionGO and MediGo, also sings the surgeon’s praises, agreeing with Suntha that Scalea’s ideas and innovations will change the landscape of transplantation.

“As our newly formed companies have grown, I’ve watched Dr. Scalea's entrepreneurial skills blossom,” Plank said. “He has all the characteristics of a successful entrepreneur and is well-positioned within our companies to improve the lives of patients worldwide.”

Making an Impact at UMSOM

Scalea’s career, of course, involves much more than entrepreneurism. He was recruited to UMSOM in 2016 to direct the pancreas program and tasked with improving access to pancreas care. Using a multidisciplinary and entrepreneurial approach, his team increased patient volume by more than 200 percent in less than 24 months while improving quality of care and providing an annual revenue increase of $10 million. Under Scalea’s leadership, UMSOM became the busiest combined kidney-pancreas transplant program in the United States for 2018 and 2019.

Scalea’s efforts also have led to multiple state, society, and National Institutes of Health grants and three patents, and he has written more than 65 peer-reviewed publications and 10 book chapters.

His educational history includes an undergraduate degree in information technology from Virginia Tech and fellowships at Harvard University’s Transplant Biology Research Center and the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics. The journey includes Maryland stints for medical education at UMSOM and a residency at UMMC.

And in acknowledging the UMB award, Scalea points again to his University of Maryland pride.

“It gives me great pride as a Maryland alum to show what kind of innovation our education system yields,” he said. “Working with friends and partners through the Maryland system has been just a wonderful addition to my career. And I want to thank the Maryland community for supporting me in that regard.”

— Lou Cortina