Stakeholders Debate Issues at Neurotech Leaders Forum

Staff Report

About 110 neurotechnology industry professionals, including founders of startup-firms, executives of larger companies, clinicians, university researchers, investors, and government representatives, took part in a series of discussions at the 2023 Neurotech Leaders Forum, produced by Neurotech Reports. Several of the sessions featured lively though respectful debates on critical issues facing the industry, including funding, technology platforms, reimbursement, and responding to negative studies that have impacted the neuromodulation industry in recent years.

Jim Schuermann, CEO of upstart firm Saluda Medical, delivered the keynote address on the first day of the conference, highlighting new directions in neuromodulation. He pointed out that the majority of clinical trials on the website were neurotechnology-related.

“Neurotechnology is the new frontier,” he said. “It’s what cardiology was 50 years ago.” Channeling the words of President Kennedy 60 years ago, Schuermann encouraged the audience to take up the challenge and the opportunity neurotech offers. “What’s fascinating about what we do, is we’re not doing this because it is easy, we’re doing it because it is hard,” he said.

Schuermann said that although the space is getting more crowded, there is still plenty of room for new players, pointing out the variety of neuromodulation modes and application areas.

The conference featured several panel discussions related to issues confronting the industry. NBR senior contributing editor JoJo Platt moderated a session devoted to investment, which featured Sara Shnider from Joy Ventures (now Corundum Neuroscience), Suraj Mudichintala from Action Potential Venture Capital, and Martin Dieck from Neurotechnology Investors. Shnider said her fund is composed of three elements, including an academic grant program, a VC investment arm, and a venture creation bridge model. Areas of interest include mental health, PTSD, anxiety, cognitive health, and pain. “We’re really focused on noninvasive interventions,” she said.

Mudichintala related APVC’s 10-year history, including its spinoff from GSK. The firm is focusing on the theme “energy is medicine,” and is open to other neuromodulation modalities besides electrical stimulation. Dieck said his firm emerged from his experience in the neurovascular space, including several exits. Much of the firm’s funds come from clinicians, he said, and they prefer early-stage investment. Neurotechnology Investors was a pre-series A investor in Synchron Medical.

A session moderated by NBR senior consulting editor Jeremy Koff explored the changing landscape of pain neuromodulation, including new SCS and PNS vendors. Alex Yeh from Neuspera described his firm’s unique mid-field technology for peripheral nerve stimulation. He said that intermittent stimulation is preferable to continuous stimulation in many instances.

Biotronik Neuro CEO Todd Langevin addressed the impact of new SCS players challenging the big four players, Medtronic, Boston Scientific, Abbott, and Nevro. He related a story from his days at Medtronic when they were the only player and management did not take upstart Advanced Neuromodulation Systems seriously. ANS later became St. Jude Medical and then Abbott and is now a major player in the SCS space. Langevin said that although Biotronik is the number six player in the SCS market, their background in the cardiac device industry will give them a leg up on competitors.

One session that elicited a significant amount of interaction was devoted to interpreting data from published studies and responding to negative publications that are critical of neuromodulation therapies. This session featured Sanket Dhruva from UC San Francisco, who was first author of one such negative article, published in JAMA Neurology last year. Also on the panel were Prasad Shirvalkar from UC San Francisco and Eric Grigsby from the Napa Pain Institute. Shirvalkar shared some of his recent research on brain biomarkers for chronic pain. “In a nutshell, we tried to provide a proof of concept that by putting wires in the brain and connecting them to a DBS device, we could try to predict patients’ pain activity,” he said.

Dhruva summarized his 2022 paper in JAMA Neurology. “Hopefully you will all let me get back to my car,” he quipped. He acknowledged that he does not focus on pain and that most of his experience is in cardiac devices. “We may very well have it wrong,” he said humbly. “But we’re trying to help the field understand what’s going on.” He said there’s still a need for long-term studies with longer-term follow-up of patients receiving SCS vs. conventional medical management. He acknowledged that their data came from Optum Labs, a unit of United Healthcare. Dhruva said that using Medicare data might have yielded more neutral results since private insurers are more concerned with recouping device costs on a two-year time horizon. Grigsby commended Dhruva for his work. “The fact that your study didn’t show obvious advantages for SCS tells us we have work to do, we have to clean it up,” he acknowledged.

Other panel sessions were devoted to paralysis, psychiatric disorders, outsourcing, and wearables. Futurist Daniel Kraft, founder and chair of NextMed Health, gave a keynote on the second day of the conference devoted to the future of health and medicine. The conference concluded with a panel discussion among Neurotech Reports editors, who recapped some of the issues and controversies that came up during the two-day meeting.

Executives from several new and emerging neurotech firms gave presentations during Entrepreneur Panels on each day. These included Ben Woodington, CEO of British firm Opto Biosystems, which is developing a neurodiagnostic for glioblastoma, Dave Singhal, CEO of PainVox, which has developed imaging technology to help identify chronic pain patients, Keith Warner, CEO of NeuraLace Medical, and Amy Baxter, CEO of Harmonic Pain Solutions, which has developed a wearable mechanical neuromodulation device.

Cirtec Medical was Platinum Sponsor of the 2023 event, while MST was Gold Sponsor. Silver Sponsors included Valtronic, Velentium, Focus, Neo-Bionica, and IRIS Biomedical. TTP and Microdul were Bronze Sponsors.