Daniel Burnett: Caring for Patients, Taking Care of Business

When Daniel Burnett's mother recently sent him a collection of forgotten childhood relics, he was amused to find one item - a large drawing he did at age five of the eye, with all the parts marked and named, more or less correctly.

"It was a hoot to look at," he said. "It has all the structures labeled. I've got the retina labeled with two arrows. One says 'back of eye' and the other arrow says 'retina.' That's not how it is in the textbooks! I hadn't remembered doing that, but it's interesting looking back on it after what I'm doing now."

What makes the drawing prescient is his work at Duke in ophthalmology and medicine for the past five years. If that early drawing points to a search for knowledge and a need for creative outlets, then Burnett fulfilled that while working toward two degrees in Duke's unusual joint MD-MBA program.

He combined an interest in patient care and research with an entrepreneurial drive. On the medical side, he leaves the School of Medicine prepared to start a career in ophthalmology, starting with a special research residency at Stanford. On the business side, he and other student partners are launching a company called Novoculi, which already has won cash awards at three student enterprise contests around the country and recently picked up more than $250,000 in venture capital from outside sources.

"I've accomplished just about everything that I wanted to," said the South Windsor, Conn., native. "I'm happy with what I've been able to do at Duke. Sometimes it took some effort to find the support for the things I wanted to do, but people here helped me make things happen. Whenever I tried to do something off the beaten path, I usually got a few 'nos' at first, but I would persist and ultimately someone would help me."

It didn't start that way. In his first semester in medical school here, Burnett began to fear that the medicine he was learning in the new health care environment wasn't what he expected. Everywhere he looked he found care maps dictating to physicians what steps they should take next. He said he got into medicine for the rewards of patient care and patient interaction, but in the first semester he didn't see much of that.

He took a semester off to think things over. He returned to medical school, he said, because he realized how important it was to him.

"As hard as it is, medical school was for me," said Burnett, 29. "I really enjoy patient care. It's why I got into medicine. There's not a profession out there that's more gratifying than medicine in terms of the impact on people's lives. It's why I was never interested in just doing business. The interactions with people in medicine are more fulfilling."

From the start of his medical career, he thought about getting an MBA degree, thinking that could provide another creative outlet. The School of Medicine and the Fuqua School offer an unusual program in which medical students can take a reduced course load to earn an MBA at the same time they do their medical studies.

At the same time, he looked for entrepreneurial opportunities. He went through a couple of efforts before teaming up with chemistry student Joseph Daniel Hewitt, Fuqua students Joseph Walker and Loy Hong Chia II and MIT student Andy Rubinson to start Novoculi. The name is Latin for "new eyes," and its product is a non-invasive technique for the popular refractive laser surgery (LASIK).

"I was a biomedical engineering undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania," he said. "I always knew I wanted to start a biomedical device company. Going to medical school, I knew I still wanted to start that. One of the reasons why I went to medical school was it left my options open for doing something creative while I could still work with patients.

"When I was doing my ophthalmology rotation, I noticed that there are all these complications involved in LASIK. It's a very invasive procedure. It's on a par with cataract surgery, although most people don't know that. You're going into the eye and making large incisions.

"So I thought there has to be a better way. I started doing research and toying with the idea of photodynamic therapy, which uses lasers but doesn't require an incision."

Juggling medical and business classes and a start-up company has meant there is no such thing as a typical day, Burnett said. It could involve doing medical rounds or it could involve filing papers for a patent request. He's looking forward to shedding some of the company duties when he heads to Stanford for his residency, but with more venture capital in hand, he's hopeful about the future of the company.

There's yet another side to Burnett's story. He's put his medical knowledge to use in needy places: he's taken two trips to Honduras and Guatemala to practice medicine among the country's poor in clinics there, and has launched an initiative to send recycled Duke medical supplies from sterile processing to hospitals and clinics in developing countries.

"One of the people who was our biggest supporter was Bill Dennis," the former director of sterile processing who recently died, Burnett said. "In fact, we're renaming the recycling program the Bill Dennis Memorial Recovery Program. It's exciting to me that the program has grown and that it's strong and will continue with a lot of student support."