By Marie Daghlian; Photos by Eugene Borodin
A smart contact lens that monitors blood glucose, video games that promise to enhance cognition, a novel and simple biopsy device that improves patient comfort—these are just a few of the next generation of medical devices showcased at the third annual Rosenman Institute Symposium, held June 22nd at Byers Auditorium on the University of California, San Francisco’s (UCSF) Mission Bay campus.
The Rosenman Institute, a part of QB3, helps medtech entrepreneurs trying to launch startups to develop and commercialize breakthrough technologies for unmet clinical needs. While there are many venues and incubators for biotech and technology startups, medical device startups often struggle to capture the imagination of investors. The Rosenman Institute hopes to change that by providing expertise to help launch successful companies.
The theme of the symposium, “Medical Devices Reimagined,” focused on ways startups and big companies can disrupt the delivery of health care, and move the patient’s involvement from being reactive to being proactive. An overflow audience of more than 700 investors, clinicians, engineers, entrepreneurs, and students listened to eight startups pitch their companies in less than five minutes each.
Technologies ranged from a prosthetic valve for veins to a care management robotic companion that uses artificial intelligence to hold personalized conversations with patients to encourage them to stick with their medication regimen. Innovation awards went to Encellin, which has developed a thin film cell encapsulation technology that protects transplanted therapeutic cells from being attacked by the patient’s immune system; and Sontina Medical, which aims to upend the breast biopsy industry with its low cost novel device that offers better control and safety and minimal trauma during the biopsy procedure.
Verily Chief Technology Officer Brian Otis took the podium to describe the process the company went through to develop a smart contact lens that integrates a wireless glucose sensor that can read the glucose in tear film into a soft contact lens. The embedded device also translates the data into blood glucose level, and transmits it to a smartphone. For diabetics – numbering 415 million worldwide and growing – it means not having to constantly monitor glucose levels. The data is gathered and transmitted without “bothering” the patient.
Indeed, making data gathering convenient is key as patient noncompliance is one of the biggest problems in healthcare. Darrell Johnson, vice president at medical device behemoth Medtronic, says that while most people say the thing they want most in life is health, they are often their worst enemies, with 80 percent not getting enough exercise and 84 percent not following their doctor’s recommendations. Less than half of people stick to their medication regimens. Though people live longer, many live with chronic diseases that need constant monitoring. “We have Onstar for the car but we don’t have it for our bodies,” Johnson says.
Medtronic is developing implantable systems that can provide real time data and monitoring of cardiac patients with the data automatically uploaded to the cloud and the patient’s cellphone. The patient doesn’t have to do anything, Johnson says. The important thing however, is to get data that actionable. Says Johnson, “Physicians say, ‘I don’t want more data, I want data I can act on to help my patients.’”
Adam Gazzaley’s “Technology meets Neuroscience” talk was perhaps the most fascinating part of the symposium. A professor at UCSF, Gazzaley’s vision of the future of brain health is video games that can enhance cognition, the performance of the brain. We already try to optimize other human abilities, Gazzaley says, such as flexibility, coordination, strength, balance, power, endurance, and speed. Now it’s time to enhance cognition—brainpower. This could be welcome news as more people are living longer and researchers have yet to offer a pill to counter mental decline.
Gazzaley posits that what is needed to improve brain function is a closed loop system and video games can be a powerful tool for constructing a system that uses feedback to continually change the game environment. The game could use motion capture physiology and augmented/virtual reality, tied together with machine learning and artificial intelligence. His lab designed a multitasking game called Neuroracer, where players’ improvements lasted six month. “Video gaming enhanced cognitive skills that decline with age,” Gazzaley says.
The results of his lab’s trials with Neuroracer, published in the journal Nature in 2013, were a game changer and led to his co-founding the startup Akili Interactive, which bills itself as a digital medicine company. In the future, doctors may prescribe gaming to seniors to keep their minds agile.
In a talk aimed at young entrepreneurs, Bryan Larson, a vice president at orthopedic device maker Stryker, talked about the power of being a first mover, the power of marketing, and the cultural and environmental milieu of markets for a product. He emphasized that to speed up innovation, sometimes you have to look outside the organization, license in technology, and collaborate.
The symposium ended with a panel discussion, led by San Francisco Business Times reporter Ron Leuty, on the technology that will amaze us in the coming years. The panel was comprised of Hanson Gifford, managing partner at The Foundry, Darrell Johnson of Medtronic, Reza Zadno, innovation advisor to Novartis Venture Fund, and Firat Yazicioglu, head of neuromodulation devices at GSK Bioelectronics. While no one wanted to identify a specific technology, they gave a nod to neuromodulation, targeted drug delivery devices, technology that enables precision medicine, and connected health enabled by big data.
The discussion eventually moved to challenges faced by medtech startups such as funding and regulatory issues. During the question and answer period, the panel was asked what it takes to be successful – is it the technology, the market size, the management team, the first mover status?
It’s a combination of these things. Doing your market research before pitching to investors is very important, but it isn’t everything. Zadno summed up his view: “I personally look at the ingredients but the chef makes a difference. Management is important. You need good ingredients and a good chef. And, you need to think all the way through to commercialization.”