Business

Four healthcare startups in the spotlight

Alon Mozes, left, and Juan Salcedo started the healthcare robotics company Neocis. The team is creating a robotic guidance system for the fast-growing dental implant market.
Alon Mozes, left, and Juan Salcedo started the healthcare robotics company Neocis. The team is creating a robotic guidance system for the fast-growing dental implant market. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

ROBOTICS: Neocis targets dental implant market

Alon Mozes worked at a number of young companies, including MAKO Surgical from the early days through its IPO. Then the Miami biomedical engineer took the plunge with his own robotics startup, Neocis.

Neocis is creating a robotic guidance system for the fast-growing dental implant market. The system provides the dental surgeon guidance both physically and visually before and during surgery, aiming to reduce surgery time and improve accuracy and outcomes through a minimally invasive approach. The surgeon’s procedure is planned in the software beforehand and the robot guides the drill while the doctor can also see everything on a large screen. “It’s perfect execution of your plan every time,” said Mozes. And if the surgeon needs to change her plan, that can be done on the spot within the software.

Mozes grew up in South Florida, and after getting his bachelor’s and master’s in engineering at MIT, he got his start in Silicon Valley. He worked for SportVision, an innovator in special effects for sports broadcasts like that yellow first-down line, gaining knowledge that would later come into play in robotics. But he wanted to come back to Miami, and returned in 2004 to study biomedical engineering at the University of Miami, earning his Ph.D. a few years later.

In 2005, he became one of the first 20 employees at MAKO Surgical. Mozes helped the robotics company develop software for its ground-breaking Rio system for orthopedic robotics surgery, create its first cadaver lab, and get its first FDA clearance.

He met his future co-founder in Neocis there as well: Juan Salcedo. Salcedo, who received his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and master’s in biomedical engineering at Florida International University, was a key player in the design of Mako’s first and second generations.

Neocis’ co-founders believed there was an unmet need and a lot of potential in the fast-growing dental implant market for robotic surgery.

Both men believed there was an unmet need and a lot of potential in the fast-growing dental implant market for robotic surgery. The $4.5 billion dental implant market, driven by an aging population and rising awareness about oral health, is estimated to reach nearly $8 billion by 2020, according to a 2014 research report.

They began working on their idea about 2009, Mozes said. Their prototype, made with scrap metal, looks nothing like what they have now, but it is proudly displayed in their office. “Nights, weekends, in the garage, that’s our beginning,” Salcedo said.

Neocis raised seed funding — its first investor was Fred Moll, who founded Intuitive Surgical and is well-known in the industry — at the end of 2012 and hired its first employee in January 2013. The company’s next multimillion-dollar injection came from a mix of local investors from Mozes’ Mako network as well as some from California.

Now with 11 employees, Neocis has completed its first-generation system and is going through the FDA process. Neocis is raising more money now.

Still, funding has been a challenge, Mozes said, because South Florida is still not seen from the outside as a typical environment for robotics and medical device innovation. But he’s happy to be seeing a growing healthcare innovation ecosystem here, with companies like MAKO, OrthoSensor, Modernizing Medicine and CareCloud among the leaders of the current generation: “It’s great to see them growing here and finding success.”

LIFE SCIENCES: Biscayne, Insero stronger together

Healthcare investor Samuel Reich empathizes with the scientist-inventor in the lab struggling to commercialize research so patients can actually benefit from it. He was one himself 15 years ago at the University of Pennsylvania, when he was developing his first company, Acuity, as a grad student in molecular biology.

He merged that ophthalmic biotech company with two ventures controlled by South Florida serial entrepreneur Phillip Frost to form Opko Health and worked at Frost’s OPKO Health during its early years. But several years later, Reich wanted to get involved with inventive scientists in the lab again — this time as an investor.

When he went to University of Miami labs “looking for exciting science,” he met Nobel Laureate scientist Dr. Andrew Schally and colleagues who were developing a novel cancer therapy.

Reich and the team worked with UM on getting the license agreement executed in order to acquire the worldwide patent rights, and founded Biscayne Pharmaceuticals in late 2012. Biscayne was a preclinical-stage company developing therapies for drug-resistant cancers.

“My initial interest was to be an investor, but one of the things I realized very early on was that these very early-stage companies don’t have management teams,” Reich said. “Part of being an early-stage investor is being very hands-on.” He became CEO.

Around the same time, he also invested in Insero Health, a young company in Miami he found at the UM Life Science & Technology Park. Insero is focused on treatments for epilepsy, pain and other central nervous system disorders. Its drug is now being tested in clinical trials. It has completed phase one and will soon be entering a phase two trial.

Last month, Biscayne and Insero merged, and Reich stepped down as Biscayne’s CEO, continuing as executive chairman. Experienced biotech executive Dr. Stephen Collins, formerly CEO of Insero Health, was tapped to lead the combined company.

Both companies had assets that complemented one another, Reich said, and he thought the companies would be stronger together.

“From the Biscayne point of view, we wanted to be a clinical stage company with a great management team, and we were a couple years away from that. So we decided to accelerate that by merging with a company that had both of those things. That gave us a little more time and breathing room,” he said, explaining that preclinical companies suffer with institutional investors because there isn’t patient data to show their drugs actually work.

In total, Biscayne has raised about $7 million, including investments into Insero. The company is raising a Series B round with a target of $18 million to advance both the central nervous system and cancer programs.

His advice to scientist-inventors: Get to know your tech transfer office right away. The office can help with patent filings, seed funding and building a management team. Another great resource, he said: The Florida Institute for the Commercialization of Public Research, which has funded 43 life science companies in the state. “Biscayne and Insero received three fundings from the Institute as well as guidance and mentorship. … We work with them pretty closely.”

The Institute and angel investors like Reich are critical to a healthcare ecosystem because venture capitalists are waiting longer into the life-cycle of a company to get involved, he said. That leaves a big gap between these early inventions and when the technology is mature enough for institutional investment.

Reich also advises scientific entrepreneurs to get involved in the South Florida biotech community and go to events hosted by the Institute, BioFlorida and other organizations: “You can be pretty isolated in the lab — you’ve got to get out.”

HEALTHCARE: FIGS finds better way to clothe an industry

The best medical treatment in the world can be sabotaged by a hospital-spread infection. Trina Spear and her co-founder Heather Hasson are squarely focused on making a difference there with their mission-driven e-commerce startup, FIGS.

To shake up an antiquated industry making the same boxy, uncomfortable and not-always-hygenic scrubs for a century, FIGS spent two years innovating the fabric alone.

FIGS, a fashion-forward medical apparel company based in South Florida, makes scrubs and sells them directly to healthcare professionals on wearfigs.com. To shake up an antiquated industry making the same boxy, uncomfortable and not-always-hygenic scrubs for a century, FIGS spent two years innovating the fabric alone.

“We were the first company to develop an anti-microbial treatment so that bacteria and infection and fluids aren’t seeping through and harming the medical professional. That was important to us,” Spear said. “Our fabric is stain-repellent and has moisture-wicking abilities. Think about what Dry-Fit did for athletics: We are the company that is bringing performance elements and technical elements to this industry that has never existed before.”

The scrubs are designed to look nice, too, with lots of functionality — pockets properly sized for today’s devices, medical supplies and other work gear, inside zippers where you can put your your wedding ring or your watch. “These are very important when you are on your feet 14 hours a day and you need something comfortable and functional for your job,” Spear said.

Based in Hollywood with an office in Los Angeles, the venture-funded FIGS is now a company with about 15 people. Before co-founding FIGS, Spear went to Harvard Business School and worked in investment banking: “I was doing very well and was working with talented and smart people, but I wanted to make a bigger difference in the world.”

Hasson, a serial entrepreneur in the fashion industry, was trying to help a nurse practitioner friend find a better pair of scrubs — without success. At about the same time, Spear had done a private equity deal on a large medical apparel company, so she knew the antiquated industry needed disruption. They teamed up.

Integral to its social entrepreneurial business model, FIGS (which stands for Fashion Inspires Global Sophistication) has a nonprofit arm, Threads for Threads: For every set of scrubs sold, FIGS gives a set to medical workers in need in emerging economies in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and other parts of the world.

“In two years, we’ve donated about 75,000 sets of scrubs in 26 countries, and we’ve been able to reduce the hospital-acquired infection rate there by 66 percent,” said Spear. “It’s really just about having a clean pair of scrubs: Many [medical professionals] are working in dirty jeans and a T-shirt, and they are spreading disease from patient to patient.”

The company also partners with organizations such as International Medical Corps and sponsors medical missions for doctors and nurses to go abroad and help. It has sent in scrubs after natural disasters.

HEALTH TECH: Big data meets genomics with ViaGenetics

Dr. Stephan Züchner, a genomics scientist who helped establish the world-class genetics department at the University of Miami, created a collaborative tool so he and his colleagues at UM as well as his circle outside the university could share genomic data.

This tool would become the proof-of-concept for ViaGenetics, a startup formed when Züchner teamed up with an experienced CEO with over 120 patents, Richard Postrel. Seeing big business potential, Postrel rebuilt and expanded the platform and put it through about two years of testing. In October, the platform was unveiled at the American Society of Human Genomics conference in Baltimore, where scientists received live demonstrations and were encouraged to try it themselves.

“We provide a platform where researchers and scientists can enter their genomic data. We make it really easy to manipulate it, and to search it and to share it. When you want to query, or test a hypothesis, in almost all instances today it will take three to four hours to do it for a single genome. Our system can search and interrogate thousands of genomes simultaneously, and we can return the response in six or seven seconds,” said Postrel. “We collapse the cycle time of discovery and take a huge amount of costs out of the discovery process.”

In addition to mainstream diseases like Alzheimer’s, ViaGenetics focuses on the rare-disease world. It has established partnerships with such institutions as Mayo Clinic, and, together with the state of Florida, is funding a project with Mayo to investigate a rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s. As the platform grows, the business model calls for pursuing more partnerships with premier hospitals, including those focused on children’s rare diseases. To that end, ViaGenetics says it is developing a major research project with Miami Children’s Hospital Research Institute, part of Nicklaus Children's Hospital.

So far, about 700 investigators from 44 countries have joined the ViaGenetics platform.

“To be successful, [ViaGenetics] has to connect scientists and patients globally so you can find matches between two families who share a disease. That is the most effective way to understand the genetic basis,” Züchner said. “I can share a terabyte of data with a researcher in Europe in a matter of seconds. It’s a marketplace of knowledge and discovery.”

And through the platform so far, 79 disease-related genes have been discovered, Züchner said. “We published 55 papers in 23 journals.”

For now, the self-funded company is focused on developing a critical mass of companies and research labs using the site, so costs are low. ViaGenetics also has a nonprofit arm, The Genesis Project, which provides free access to the platform to academics, nonprofits and foundations.

There is no doubt that genomics and big data are hot right now, and a number of startups are going after different parts of this emerging marketplace, including another UM-related startup, Preclara. While other startups offer some of what ViaGenetics offers, ViaGenetics is the only one to offer a complete end-to-end solution for whole genomes, the company said.

“It’s like the wild west. We want to stake out our territory,” Postrel said. “Every day, we are discovering something.”

Nancy Dahlberg; 305-376-3595; @ndahlberg

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