UNC's Emerging Company Showcase highlights new healthcare technologies

UNC held its annual Emerging Company Showcase this week, an event that gives companies spun out of the university the chance to strut their stuff in an eight minute presentation before an audience of researchers, entrepreneurs and potential investors or partners.

This year’s showcase featured a total of 14 companies; eight companies in the scientific track, which encompassed technologies that have applications in healthcare or scientific work. Many of the companies have received support from Carolina KickStart, a UNC program funded by the North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences (TraCS) Institute.

Carolina KickStart’s role is to provide support UNC faculty members who are looking to commercialize new biomedical technologies. Here are the scientific companies that presented at the event:

Augment Medical: Augment Medical aims to improve the ability of disabled patients to use the nurse call system. The Joint Commission, a hospital certification and accreditation body, has called for the hospitals to make the nurse call system accessible to all patients regardless of cognitive or physical ability by the third quarter of 2012. On Augment’s system, raising an eyebrow is all it takes to activate a facial sensor that triggers a call to the nurse. Future versions will have eye-tracking capabilities that bring the calling function to a tablet computer. The company was founded by graduate students in the joint departments of biomedical engineering at North Carolina State University and UNC. “We want to be the standard of care for The Joint Commission,” said Timothy Martin, Augment’s president and co-founder. The company last year was awarded a $7,000 grant from NC TraCS. The company is looking to raise $750,000 from investors or strategic partners.

GeneCentric Diagnostics: Taking a personalized medicine approach to cancer treatment, GeneCentric is developing new diagnostics to match a drug to individual patients in order to maximize the efficacy of cancer treatments and reduce adverse events. GeneCentric’s initial focus is nonsmall cell lung cancer, or NSCLC. The company’s diagnostic tests for the subtype of NSCLC, which is important because some currently approved drugs as well as drugs still in development work differently depending on the subtype. “We wouldn’t know which drug would work if we didn’t have the right diagnostic,” said Myla Lai-Goldman, CEO and co-founder. The company is based on research from Dr. Neil Hayes and Chuck Perou of UNC. GeneCentric raised $250,000 from Hatteras Venture Partners last year.

Cell Microsystems: The company’s IsoRaft product offers a new approach to sorting and separating cells in a research sample. CEO Chris Morrison said that his company’s product offers a less expensive and faster way of sorting compared to existing technologies. Cells are cultured on an IsoRaft array, similar to a petri dish, that consists of more than 180,000 removable “rafts.” Once the desired cells are identified, Cell Microsystem‘s release device can punch out the desired rafts for collection. The release device mounts onto a standard laboratory microscope. The technology was developed in the UNC laboratory of chemistry professor Nancy Allbritton. IsoRaft is currently being used by researchers at several North Carolina universities, but the company wants to broaden its reach by targeting pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. Cell Microsystems has raised $100,000 in loans and is aiming for a $250,000 series A round for a commercial launch and to demonstrate scalability, and later a $1.5 million series B round to grow the company.

Cortical Metrics: Cortical Metrics assesses brain health with a device that measures tactile responses in the fingers. The company’s device is based on the relationship between sensory nerves in the fingers and corresponding regions in the brain. The technology grew out of research from doctors Mark Tommerdahl and Robert Dennis of the UNC School of Medicine. Tommerdahl said that the device could be used to help assess conditions such as traumatic brain injury, concussions, dementia and pain. The company is seeking $1 million to accelerate development.

Katharos: Katharos is developing a medical device to help patients on kidney dialysis. End-stage renal disease patients must take pills for high blood phosphate levels, a regimen that calls for four pills four times a day at a cost of up to $300 a week. Katharos’ product candidate is called “Phosphilter.” If fits on the dialysis machine and filters the phosphates. The anticipated weekly cost is $90. CEO Al Bender said that in addition to offering a lower cost alternative, phosphilter would overcome the difficulty of low patient compliance with the pills. The company was co-founded by Marian McCord, professor of biomedical engineering and textile engineering at the UNC/NCSU joint departments of biomedical engineering and Melanie Joy, a professor in the UNC School of Medicine whose research focuses on interventions for kidney disease. Katharos is seeking $1.5 million to build a pilot product and to conduct animal trials.

KindHeart: KindHeart aims to improve doctor training by medical simulations. The company has developed training techniques that use animal organs in human mannequins to simulate a surgical environment. Video simulations are not realistic enough and a human patient doesn’t allow a resident to learn by repetition, said CEO Tom Birchard. The simulators also allow residents to train for adverse events, something that’s difficult to do with a live patient. KindHeart plans to license its simulators to medical schools. The company is targeting the cardiothoracic surgery market first. KindHeart is looking to raise $250,000 by the end of 2012.

NeuroGate Therapeutics: Neuropathic pain is the target of NeuroGate Therapeutics. The compound NGT-110 was developed in the laboratory of founder Harold Kohn, a professor in UNC’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy as well as the department of chemistry. Kohn had previously invented lacosamide, an anticonvulsant marketed by UCB Pharma. NGT-110 works by limiting the firing that signals pain receptors. NeuroGate President Tom Pitler said the market opportunity is large. The six approved drugs to treat neuropathic pain generate more than $6 billion in annual sales but they are only marginally effective. NeuroGate needs $170,000 to validate the compound, $2.6 million for investigational new drug application-enabling studies and $2.4 million for phase 1 clinical trials. Pitler said that he would like to partner with a major pharmaceutical company.

REALTROMINS: The company is developing software and devices for patient monitoring in intensive care units. While several companies sell patient monitoring devices, REALTROMINS chief medical officer Keith Kocis said that his company’s products will monitor patients’ conditions in real time and employ predictive analytics to identify high-risk patients that need attention. Kocis said that the device would need 510(k) clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a class II device. REALTROMINS is looking for either a codevelopment partnership with a health IT company, or a series A round of funding. Kocis did not specify a funding amount.

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