When he enrolled in UConn’s biomedical engineering graduate program in 2005, Eric Sirois wasn’t thinking about a career in business. But an entrepreneurship class that helped him better understand how to commercialize the heart valve implant he’d been developing changed that.
These days, Sirois, CEO of Dura Biotech, a startup participating in UConn’s Technology Incubation Program, is not only prepping his product for animal trials, but attracting funders too.
This past summer the company, founded in 2012, secured two, $400,000 investments — one from the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund, a state-led effort to bring bioscience breakthroughs to market; the other a federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to continue development of its aortic valve implant.
“The funding — particularly from the state — has helped validate our work,” Sirois said.
Dura Biotech is developing a transcatheter aortic valve implant that’s 40 percent smaller than any product currently on the market, Sirois said.
The aortic valve is a key thoroughfare that allows oxygen-rich blood to flow from the heart to the rest of the body.
The transcatheter implant approach, by which the heart valve is accessed through a catheter inserted in the femoral artery near the groin, helps reduce the need for more invasive, expensive and risky open-heart surgery.
The smaller design would potentially be ideal for the estimated 17,000 patients each year — particularly the elderly or children — who need an aortic valve replacement, but have arteries that are too small or narrow for currently available products.
In fact, today’s untreated population — for whom modern catheters are too big — is the niche market Sirois wants to capture.
“Ninety-five percent of the transcatheter market is dominated by two [established] companies,” Sirois explained. “We don’t have the infrastructure to compete.” But even a small slice of this growing market, he contends, can drive strong revenues eventually.
According to Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research, transcatheter aortic valve implant systems have already yielded nearly $1 billion in revenues worldwide, a number that’s expected to triple to more than $3 billion in 2016.
And while Dura Biotech is still in the early stages of product testing, its investors are bullish about the company’s future.
“Dura Biotech not only has a unique approach to the [heart valve] technology, but also has the ability to bring its product to market,” said Jeremy Crisp, executive vice president and chief innovation officer of Connecticut Innovations, and head of the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund, which made nearly $2 million available this year to support the development of bioscience projects in the state. “While financial returns may take time to realize,” Crisp said, “Dura Biotech’s project has potential to add positive economic impact to the state.”
Sirois said early stage funding will allow the company to start testing its product on animals and add new employees. It employs seven people, mostly UConn biomedical engineering students or graduates.
Being part of the UConn incubator program, Sirois says, has been a big advantage as well. “It has helped us with access to a high-quality research lab and mentorship opportunities,” he said. “In addition, it’s helped us connect to [potential] funders.”
Those resources have been critical to the early successes of Dura Biotech’s painstakingly detailed work. Assembling each Dura Heart Valve — which must be hand-sewn to exact specifications — can take two to five days, he said.
The prototype design was developed using thousands of computer-generated simulations that allowed Sirois to theoretically test his would-be product’s durability and efficiency.
“We were able to generate a 40 percent stress reduction [to the heart] in our tests,” Sirois explained, “while crafting a product that is four times more durable,” than technology currently available on the market.
The biggest challenge his company now faces, Sirois says, is making sure his valve replacement works in animals; they will begin a six-month testing phase in February.
If successful, Sirois said he hopes to begin clinical trials by 2017 on human patients in Europe, which has less stringent test group requirements than the U.S.
And while Dura Biotech is exclusively focused on bringing its heart valve technology to market, Sirois thinks his company’s simulation capabilities could also benefit high-risk patients with heart valve problems.
“We can take a pre-operative CT scan and echo-cardiogram [which shows an image of the patient’s heart] and on a case-by-case basis conduct computer simulations to predict the best technique for valve replacement,” he said.
Sirois said he is confident in his company’s future.
“I have learned that every role everyone has played from marketing to product development is critical to our success,” Sirois said.