Health care has always been ripe for innovation. Whether it’s increasing safety in operating rooms, developing systems to reduce patient wait times, or improving medication administration, there are endless opportunities to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of healthcare. The Covid-19 pandemic made the need for these solutions even more pressing.
“There were a number of MIT startups that addressed issues related to the pandemic,” says George Whitfield, entrepreneur-in-residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. “One company, Biobot Analytics, developed a technology to monitor the spread of disease by looking at wastewater in sewers. In a case of incredible chance, they developed this right when the covid began to spread ”.
Another startup inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic, Teal Bio, has developed a comfortable, reusable, and transparent respirator that can be worn by healthcare professionals on long shifts. The company has identified a number of benefits to its design, including lower costs, less waste, and an improved ability to identify emotions. Teal Bio was co-founded by Department of Mechanical Engineering (MechE) leaders for Global Operations alumnus Jason Troutner MBA ’19, SM ’19 and Giovanni Traverso, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.
Traverso is no stranger to startups. He has co-founded seven of them. Traverso, MD-PhD, is an assistant professor at MIT and a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. His companies range in size from one employee to 140 employees. With the exception of Teal Bio, the common thread of his companies is gastroenterology.
“These companies are launching systems that make it easier for patients to receive drugs one way or another, particularly through the GI tract,” Traverso says.
One of the companies Traverso co-founded, Lyndra Therapeutics, hopes to revolutionize the way patients take medications. They have developed an oral drug delivery platform called LYNX, which consistently delivers one, two, or four weeks of drug in a capsule that releases the drug over a specified period of time. The capsule dissolves in the stomach and a star-shaped drug delivery system emerges.
The arms of the “star” are made of a polymer that contains the drug and are connected to a central core via degradable connectors. Once the dosing period is complete, the linkers disintegrate, the arms separate, and the entire system moves safely from the stomach to the small intestine, where it passes through the gastrointestinal tract. The platform is being studied with a variety of drugs, including an oral memantine for Alzheimer’s disease.
“Many patients need a loved one or caregiver to help them take their oral medication every day, so giving them the ability to take a pill once a week or once a month would positively affect adherence and have a great impact on their quality of life,” says Traverso. .
Lyndra has raised $240 million to date. One of the therapies they developed to deliver drugs used to treat schizophrenia has advanced to phase two clinical trials.
Clinical trials are one example of the unique hurdles medtech startups like Lyndra face on the road to commercialization. Agencies such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health require strict regulations that must be met before any medical device, drug, or healthcare platform can be sold to consumers. end users.
“Having an understanding of the regulatory, manufacturing and business challenges that need to be met to launch a successful product is really crucial. It talks about the resources that are required to be able to execute these regulations”, adds Traverso. In his first year on the MIT faculty, Traverso introduced a new class, 2.S988 (Translational Engineering), whose goal is to introduce these critical elements to students.
Ellen Roche, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, is currently trying to determine the regulatory needs for her own startup. In May, she won the grand prize in the inaugural MIT Future Founders Initiative Award competition for her submission.
Roche has developed a minimally invasive technology that occludes the left atrial appendage in patients with atrial fibrillation. The technology, which she developed with Professor Jennifer Lewis at Harvard University, decreases the likelihood that blood clots will break loose, thus preventing stroke.
“The Future Founders program was invaluable in refining our company vision and identifying the right regulatory and commercialization path forward,” says Roche. “Creating a pitch deck forced us to really think about things like our core market, our clinical target population, our funding, and intellectual property. [intellectual property] strategy, while having access to a network of experts.
In September, Roche and his team also won the Lab Central Ignite Golden Ticket to support start-up founders from groups traditionally underrepresented in the biotech industry.
Both Traverso and Roche have served as instructors for the Mechanical Engineering 2.75 (Medical Device Design) class, along with Professor Alexander Slocum and Nevan Hanumara. The class culminates in a project in which students work with physicians from Boston-area hospitals and industry representatives to design medical devices that address a particular problem. Throughout the class, regulatory experts introduce students to the unique challenges of starting a company or launching a product in the healthcare space.
A 2.75 alumnus, Adam Sachs ’13, co-founded the startup Vicarious Surgical. The company has developed a robotic system that enables minimally invasive surgery. A camera and two robotic instruments enter the abdomen through an incision smaller than the size of a dime. The surgeon can then operate with 360 degree visibility inside the patient’s body.
“The 2.75 course gave me a deep understanding of the entire medical device design process, which was incredibly valuable when we founded Vicarious Surgical. It helped me understand a user’s needs, showed me how to deliver a product, and allowed me to immerse myself in the end-to-end device development process, much of which I continue to reference as the company grows and we continue to develop our system,” says Sachs.
Vicarious Surgical, based in Waltham, Massachusetts, and currently with just over 200 full-time employees, is in the process of development. They have received positive feedback from surgeons regarding their Beta 2 prototypes. After obtaining the appropriate FDA approvals, Sachs and his team plan to bring their product to market for use in hernias and other general surgery procedures.
Traverso sees mechanical engineers, such as himself, Roche and Sachs, as particularly well-suited for launching new medtech companies.
“A big part of our program is hands-on experience, which we introduce and encourage through many of our course offerings. I think that is very valuable when you are developing a device that will interact with another human being,” she says.