Triangle professor draws inventor award from MIT

The allure of creating hasn't let go of Joseph DeSimone since he concocted a vial of purple crystals in high school.

A chemist who holds posts at two Triangle universities, DeSimone is still caught up in experimenting, even as national attention for his work, and his collection of accolades, continue to grow.

On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced DeSimone, 44, as the winner of this year's Lemelson Prize. Also known as the “Oscar for Inventors,” the award pays $500,000 in cash.

DeSimone knew he was in the running for the award, but said he considered himself “a huge long shot.”

No other scientist in the Triangle, a hub for scientific innovation, has won the Lemelson in the award's 14-year history.

Following interviews with science writers and New England TV news throughout the day on Wednesday, DeSimone planned to throw a party for 45 of his family members, students and friends at Anthony's Pier 4, a seafood restaurant overlooking Boston Harbor.

“It's surreal, all the attention,” DeSimone said in a phone interview.

DeSimone won the award because of his diverse contributions in the field of polymers, man-made materials better known as plastics. He has coaxed these materials to dissolve, to fill microscopically small molds and to protect the environment.

“He's an outstanding guy, very innovative, very bright, a go-getter,” said Robert Langer, an MIT chemistry professor and Lemelson Prize winner who nominated DeSimone for the award.

In the past five years, DeSimone mostly has worked on medical devices. That includes a drug-laced stent that keeps blocked arteries open and then dissolves to prevent scarring, and bacteria-shaped vessels that can enter tumor cells to unload poisonous cargo.

His business card lists academic appointments at UNC Chapel Hill, where he directs a team of 35 students and associates, and at N.C. State University, where he teaches chemical engineering.

DeSimone also oversees product development as chief scientific officer at Liquidia Technologies, a Durham company he co-founded. He says the best ideas come to him at the beach.