Medical device startups find a resource in Minneapolis incubator

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Arundhati Parmar

The Sister Kenny Research Center in Minneapolis is part an academic exercise in grant writing and research activity, but part an ambitious effort to be a medical device incubator to create or support companies making the next breakthrough rehabilitation device.

Situated next to the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute’s inpatient-care unit at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, the center has now taken equity in a company based on technology created by its director, Lars Oddsson.

Recently, that company — RxFunction and its prototype Walkasins, which helps improve the balance of people at risk of falling — were named semifinalists at the Minnesota Cup statewide business competition. A CEO has been hired to commercialize the product and to see it through a 510(k) application. The product was developed by Oddsson while he was at Boston University.

The overarching goal of the tech transfer effort is to get Sister Kenny clinicians involved in creating technologies that can be transferred, as well as supporting companies that can test their ideas and technology by taking advantage of the center’s infrastructure.

In a recent interview, Oddsson described this as the “embedded incubation” model.

“A company can be here and they can use some of the resources that we have like an IRB for clinical trials and some early development prototypes,” Oddsson said. “We can work with inventors on the outside, inside or both and that’s the model that I think will allow these small startup companies to build some value, take out risk before they go out and talk to investors.”

The center was set up with a $2.8 million grant from the Sister Kenny Foundation in 2007 and $1 million was spent to build out the space where companies can be incubated. Generating a revenue stream so that the center would not be dependent solely on the fundraising prowess of the Sister Kenny Foundation is something Oddsson wants to achieve.

And with RxFunction, in which the center has taken equity, Oddsson hopes to have a proof of concept at least on the business incubation side of the center. (The success of the research side can be determined by the number of grants the center can get from the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health. Already, the center has several DoD contracts, Oddsson said.)

The company’s prototype Walkasins is something to be worn as an insole in your shoes. It transmits cues up a person’s leg through a processor device so that a user who has lost his balance and feeling in the bottom of his feet knows when to adjust his walking posture to prevent a fall.

Oddsson, who holds the patent for the technology, said that the first set of customers RxFunction is targeting is hospitals. Hospitals, the majority of whom are getting accredited by the Joint Commission and need to screen patients for their risks of falling, typically see 20 percent of patients per year in danger of that. Falling can add costs to healthcare systems in addition to being hard on patients.

A final prototype is being designed and Oddsson said a clinical trial will also be undertaken to present data for an ultimate 510(k) application.

There are other technologies being developed, too. For instance, the Flamingo helps patients regain their balance after they have suffered strokes or other balance-altering conditions.

Then there is SKOTEE — the Sister Kenny Home Therapy System — which is a robotic device for patients at home. The device helps with daily activities like taking medication and remembering doctor visits. The robotic tool also wirelessly manages exercise programs through the web and enables therapists to upload new training tasks, monitor patient progress and interact with patients through cameras and microphones.

“It’s a platform for engaging patients and supporting them in their outpatient treatments and the requirements for those,” Oddsson said.

But whatever technology will be commercialized, the goal is to keep them simple and inexpensive.

“We want to focus on low-risk technologies, so you are not applying for more than a 510(k),” Oddsson said. “(We envision) a fairly short path to market. We don’t need five, 10, $20 million to bring these things to market. One mill to two is all we need.”

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