DARPA Contractors Meet with Investors at Translational Neurotech Showcase
by Jennifer French, senior contributing editor
November 2020 issue
Neurotech investigators and entrepreneurs who received funding from two key programs supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency met with interested venture capital and strategic firm investors during the inaugural Translational Neurotech Showcase earlier this month. The invitation-only event, which was conducted via remote video conference because of the Coronavirus pandemic, took place immediately after the 20th Annual Neurotech Leaders Forum.
Neurotech Reports staff teamed with DARPA representatives to produce the one-day event. It highlighted a select group of DARPA-funded performers whose work is poised and ready for investment and further commercialization.
The performers were curated from the DARPA ElectRx and HAPTIX programs. The latter program launched in 2014 as the Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces program and focused on the development of key technologies to allow precision control of and sensory feedback from sensor-equipped upper-limb prosthetic devices. The ElectRx program was introduced in 2015 and is geared toward the nonpharmacological treatments for pain, general inflammation, post-traumatic stress, severe anxiety, and trauma. Technologies developed use precise, closed-loop, noninvasive modulation of the peripheral nervous system. Both are slated to expire in the near future.
Eric van Gieson and Al Emondi, the ElectRx and HAPTIX program managers, kicked off the event. They each stressed the importance of early-stage development as well as the commitment from DARPA to de-risk the technologies in preparation for commercialization.
NBR editor James Cavuoto delivered an overview of the neurotechnology and bioelectronic medicine markets. He also highlighted the key industry competitors along with recent and notable venture capital investments in the neurotech industry. The following two sessions addressed the investor appetite for neurotechnology and yielded advice to the performers and entrepreneurs at the event. In a series of short interviews, each investor gave some words of advice.
Diana Saraceni, founder and managing partner of Panakes Partners, stressed the importance of engaging investors early in the fund-raising process and listening to their advice. Faz Bashi, life science syndication chair for the Angel Capital Association, conveyed that investing is a people business and advised startups to take the time to learn about the investor’s interests. Juan Cueva, a recent addition to Action Potential Ventures, and Bob Greenberg, board chair of the Alfred E. Mann Foundation, also provided advice.
Riki Banerjee from Medtronic contributed her perspective on how a large corporation in the neurotech industry strategically invests in emerging technologies. With 2020 medical device dollars and deals trending to overtake those of 2019, according to Silicon Valley Bank, it is an exciting time to be in the field and investors agree that neurotech is a key modality in this medical device sector.
Ten DARPA-funded performers presented their emerging technologies as well as their business cases for commercialization. Ranu Jung of Florida International University presented their new distributed intrafascicular multi-electrodes used to restore sensation in amputees using any commercially available prosthetic. The biomimetic neural patterning technology can also be applied to neuromodulation applications such as neuropathic pain or bioelectronic medicine.
Daniel McDonnall from Ripple also presented their technology for restoration of sensation. Their implanted nerve cuff and stimulator has the ability to restore sensation through a prosthetic limb but the same technology may be used for the treatment of phantom limb pain, a debilitating condition impacting 1.5 million people in the U.S. This technology is being commercialized through a Ripple spin-off company, Sync Bionics.
A wearable ultrasound technology to treat and monitor inflammatory and autoimmune disorders was developed through a three-institute consortium of investigators: Anuj Bhardwaj, Hubert Lim, and Chris Puleo. The noninvasive focused ultrasound technology has applications for chronic conditions such as RA, MS, and IBD as well as acute inflammation caused by conditions like sepsis and COVID-19. The technology is positioned to commercialize through a firm called SecondWave.
Another technology developed by a team led by Medhi Javanmard of Rutgers University also addresses inflammatory conditions but as a diagnostic. The nanowell impedance sensing system is designed to diagnose inflammatory conditions within minutes and can be administered in a physician’s office. A second diagnostic tool was presented by Omer Inan but for a very different application. The JOINTech is a wearable joint health assessment tool developed out of Georgia Tech with applications for sports medicine, injury mitigation, and orthopedics.
Fred Moll and Barbara Nguyen-Vu from Circuit Therapeutics introduced their novel optogenetic technology for treating chronic pain and Parkinson’s disease. The technology is currently in pre-clinical phase and slated to begin a first-in-human clinical study in the near future. Another pre-clinical technology was presented by John Furness of the Florey Institute of Neuroscience in Melbourne, Australia. They are developing VNS therapies for IBD specific Crohn’s disease.
The final two presenting performers are further along in the commercialization effort and both address obstructive sleep apnea but with very different approaches. Sonosa Medical, a spin-out from the Maryland Development Center, was presented by Stephen Restaino. They have developed a wearable ultrasound platform as a home-use diagnostic tool to replace the in-clinic sleep assessment test and as a home-use therapy to stimulate the hypoglossal nerve. Robert Rennaker of the University of Texas, Dallas introduced his commercial venture, X-nerve. The ReVive system is an implantable miniaturized IPG and cuff electrode that is externally powered through an RF transmitter. The team plans to begin a phase I clinical trial in 2022 and currently has three FDA issued IDEs as a VNS system.