The OTT POC Fund: A Little Goes a Long Way

What’s one of the biggest hurdles to startup success? Finding enough money to start.

Seed funding is absolutely critical to getting new technologies on the market. It’s the money that can help give an idea a physical shape, put it on the path to becoming a full-fledged product. The POC fund is a simple idea reflected in its simple acronym: proof of concept. The fund is meant to give Emory inventors enough money to develop their product with as little bureaucratic stalling as possible. By getting funds into the hands of innovators quickly and effectively, and by helping provide follow-up funding opportunities, we’ve been able to push the growth of multiple startups. Today, we highlight two teams that have used our POC funding to full effect: CorAmi and Covanos, both focused on finding new ways to treat heart disease.

CorAmi

Scientists have made leaps and bounds in finding new ways to heal our organs when they break. New medicines promise to restore damaged tissues in the heart, intestines, pancreas and beyond by physically attaching regenerative cells or drugs onto them using substances called hydrogels. But how do we get those drugs to hard-to-reach areas – for example, the surface of the heart?

Rebecca Levit photo

Rebecca Levit, MD

That’s where CorAmi comes in, with a proprietary device designed to deliver these hydrogels and related medications straight to the heart without requiring invasive surgery. Rebecca Levit, MD, is the inventor of this technology and CSO of CorAmi Therapeutics. She came up with the idea for her solution while working as a resident/ research fellow studying regenerative medicine. Levit was well aware of the technical challenges surrounding hydrogels, but was also interested in how to get them there. If a patient happened to need open heart surgery, delivery wouldn’t be a significant concern – but most patients don’t.

The challenge, then, is to create a device that can be inserted into the chest, through the sac that keeps your heart suspended in liquid called the pericardium, and on top of the surface of the damaged heart tissue – all without breaking blood vessels or interrupting the electrical signals that control the heart. After coming up with an initial design, Levit went to the Coulter Foundation and the OTT, who awarded her thirty thousand dollars from the POC fund to develop proof of concept for her device. She used the funding to hire an engineer, and with him created a design that could lay a hydrogel onto the heart without leaking out.

But many hydrogels are still waiting for FDA approval. “It’s like having a gun with no bullets,” Levit says.

So today, CorAmi is soliciting their hydrogel delivery device along with their own medication: a formulation of amiodarone, a drug that can treat irregular beating of the heart. With many hydrogels awaiting approval by the FDA, delivery systems like CorAmi’s could be part of a new frontier in treating patients.

Covanos

About 1 million cardiac catheterizations (or caths) are performed in the United States every year. It’s a common procedure, but only a few steps short of surgery – it involves threading a long tube from outside the body through an artery in the leg and into the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart. A contrast agent is injected and visualized using X-rays to see whether there are atherosclerotic plaques that are obstructing blood flow. This information is used to decide on further treatment, such as placing stents in the arteries or performing bypass surgery. About 50% of those caths, however, turn up negative results for obstructive coronary artery disease, so there was no need to have the cath procedure. Because of this, there’s a real need for a noninvasive but accurate way of screening for those people who actually should have the cath procedure performed – a need that can be fulfilled using 3D imaging technology and computational fluid dynamics.

Samady & Veneziani photo

Deborah Bruner; Habib Samady & Alessandro Veneziani; Raj Guddneppanavar

Don P. Giddens, PhD is the former dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech and COO of Covanos, Inc., a start-up company that grew out of Emory research. He’s an expert in the fields of fluid dynamics and biomechanics – two fields that find their natural intersection in our circulatory system. Along with Emory cardiologist Habib Samady, MD and mathematics and computer science professor Alessandro Veneziani, PhD, the Covanos team recognized the need for a sea change in the way cardiac diseases were detected and set their interdisciplinary knowledge to the task.

CT scans have been a mainstay of medical imaging since the 1970s. By using X-rays to fire energy beams from many different angles, computers can receive and transform signals into three-dimensional images that doctors can use to diagnose disease. But it takes sensitive equipment and a lot of computing power to generate accurate pictures of spaces the size of the blood vessels in your heart. And images of the arteries alone don’t tell the whole story, and that’s where the fluid dynamics comes in – the images generated by CT scans form models for computing blood flow characteristics with mathematics similar to that used in aerospace engineering. A related technology has been approved by the FDA – but those systems don’t deliver services at the point of care for patients and also require supercomputers. To overcome those hurdles, Covanos optimized the relevant calculations to create a technology that can deliver results to the physician in less than an hour when used by a trained CT technician.

The initial Proof-of-Concept grant the Covanos team received from Emory’s Office of Technology Transfer allowed them to test their central question: can we make those computations faster?

“Our first test,” said Giddens, “was to see if we could simplify [the mathematics] without sacrificing accuracy … and that was successful.”

The information received from the CT scans allows for the calculation of a patient’s BFPi, or blood flow physiology indices – a set of metrics doctors use to determine whether a patient’s blood flow is healthy. Thanks to Covanos’ work, these programs can now “do the calculations in less than an hour on a laptop or desktop computer, by comparison to many hours on a supercomputer.”

Giddens credits the OTT for helping Covanos build important relationships among new partners and for helping to file patents for the technology. Recently, the OTT awarded Covanos its 2018 Deal of the Year Award after Emory entered into a licensing agreement for their software. With further support from the Coulter Foundation and the Georgia Research Alliance, Covanos has since expanded its team of innovators, moving closer to developing a product that could significantly improve the quality of cardiac care.

Read more about CorAmi and Covanos on their websites.

From the Director: Navigating Proof of Concept Funding – Part 2

 In 2014, the Office of Technology Transfer created a proof of concept (POC) fund. This fund was created to address the lack of funding in the “Valley of Death,” between basic scientific research and a demonstrable product. The POC fund is designed to help move technologies closer to the market.

See part one of this interview here.

How was OTT’s first investment chosen? Are there any other inventions that are in the process of applying for funding?

The first investment was chosen because we happened to have a cardiologist that had a great idea for a new device at that time to deliver stem cells to the heart. There were some potential challenges as to how you would make that and she had become aware of an industry expert in California that had expertise in making cardiovascular devices. Engaging this expert was going to cost between $10,000 and $40,000 and that became a great opportunity to use the proof of concept fund. We had interest from the Coulter Translational fund, but being able to get that initial feedback on what that prototype might look like put the technology in a much better position for Coulter funding.

As a matter of fact, just recently two additional projects were approved for proof of concept funding and there are several more that are in the works. Our goal is to create a short investment document and again, it needs to be a stage-appropriate investment document. We can’t answer all the questions we need and it does take some work to get that document completed, but if we can at least consider the intellectual property and business potential, then we can make decisions relatively quickly.

Do you think there will be an upsurge in the amount of inventions disclosed now that this funding is available?

I don’t expect there to be an upsurge in the number of inventions disclosed necessarily. I do expect there to be a surge in the number of inventors that want to take advantage of this funding and we’re starting to see that increase in interest as inventors become aware of it.

Todd Sherer, Exec Director Photograph

Todd Sherer, Exec Director

What are your goals for the fund?

At some level I think it will help our ability to get faculty—in particular, physicians—to submit their ideas to the tech transfer office because one of their complaints has always been that they may not have a research lab if they’re a clinician, so what can Emory do to help? We’ve always been able to tell them that we might be able to file a patent which they think has some benefit, but it will have a lot more benefit if we say we can provide funding if an external partner can be identified to help prototype their ideas.

How do you plan on evaluating whether an investment was successful or not?

The funds success will be determined by looking at the outcome of the technology after the funding. What was the next step? Was it licensed by a startup or established company? Ideally, we would want to see more technology licensed simply by helping move the technology forward. That metric may not always be practical so we would also track whether faculty received follow on funding that we wanted through GRA, Coulter, or through the SBIR/STTR programs. Although these are ideal metrics, the ability to conclude that the faculty and the office should not further pursue the technology as a result of the activities from the POC fund is also highly valuable. In any of these cases, the . technology is closer to a point where we can make a “go” or “no go” decision and “no go” decisions are just as important as “go” decisions.

From the Director: Navigating Proof of Concept Funding – Part 1

In 2014, the Office of Technology Transfer created a proof of concept (POC) fund. This fund was created to address the lack of funding in the “Valley of Death,” between basic scientific research and a demonstrable product. The POC fund is designed to help move technologies closer to the market.

See part two of this interview here.

What is a proof of concept fund?

A proof of concept fund, generally speaking, is non-diluted funding that can be used to take an early stage idea and get it to a proof of concept or proof of principle stage. Although this stage has different meanings for different people, at a macro level, it means that there needs to be evidence that the invention works for its intended purpose. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to use it in humans. There could be an animal model or even a cellular model that is viewed as the standard for a particular disease, which could be used for this proof of concept stage.

What motivated OTT to create such a fund?

Todd Sherer, Exec Director Photograph

Todd Sherer, Exec Director

One of our biggest challenges is that the inventions that are disclosed to the office are very early stage. As a matter of fact, they are generally referred to as embryonic. We try to go out and present these opportunities to investors, business people, and translational funds all the time and we typically hear, “Well that would be really interesting if only you had done this or done that.” We are routinely told that we need to get this technology farther down the innovation pathway and maybe at least beyond the embryonic stage. The challenge in that is finding money that can be made available quickly. The inspiration behind the Proof of Concept (POC) Fund was to have money that could be deployed with a minimum of due diligence in less time than what it might currently take to get Coulter and GRA funding, then use those funds to achieve a proof of concept-like experiment or de-risking process for our early stage technology. This POC Fund could bring the technology to the point where it could be at the proof of concept stage and easier to get follow-on translational funding.

What sorts of projects would benefit from a POC fund?

The first example could be a project that is too early for Coulter funding because the prototype needs to be at a certain developmental stage for this funding. Getting a prototype that could be tested with Coulter translational funding is a good example. A second example could be a technology that GRA reviewed and believes would be great for a Phase I, but only after some preliminary data in an in vitro or in vivo model demonstrates, at some level, that the invention works. In this situation POC funding could start it down the road of VentureLab funding and company creation. A third example could be where there is a medical device of sorts and there has been some general thought given to what that device might look like, but the clinician hasn’t had a chance to get feedback from an engineer, for example. If we had different versions of that device and how it might work, then we might be able to build a patent portfolio around it and that’s the name of the game. Broad patent protection is desirable and having multiple examples of how you might make that device is key.

The goals for the fund are to get more early stage technologies to the point where they get follow on funding from GRA, Coulter, SBIR/STTR, or even to the point where they get licensed. It is possible that proof of concept funding could bring an idea to the stage where it could be licensed out to an established company.