5 Biotech Startups Making a Difference

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PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — Despite investor fears that we are on the brink of a “biotech bubble,” Biotech companies have flourished in 2015.

Considered a “tiny strategy” for investors before the 2008 financial crisis, health-based technologies have been some of the best performing hedge fund strategies of 2015, gaining an average of 9.7 percent per quarter.

These companies are on the brink of a new trend of social entrepreneurship that can not only serve to benefit health care in OECD countries, but also in the developing world.

“There’s definitely opportunity in the space,” said Jacob Gottlieb, a founder of Visium Asset Management. “I’m very optimistic for the prospects for doing good work and analysis going forward whether the market goes up or down.”

As biotech stocks continue to climb — they have already increased by more than 350 percent over the past five years — here are five startups with innovative ideas to keep an eye on.

1. The Immunity Project
Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Immunity Project is dedicated to developing an HIV vaccine. HIV is a perennial problem in both wealthy and developing nations, with nearly 36 million people worldwide living with this disease that decimates the immune system.

The Immunity Project seeks to remedy this by creating a vaccine that turns those who receive it into “HIV controllers.” HIV controllers are people who are innately immune to the effects of HIV and are roughly one of every 300 people infected.

The vaccine accomplishes this by providing the recipient’s immune system with the information it needs to produce a cell-mediated immune response — something that controllers can do naturally.

As it stands HIV/AIDS treatment can range from $2,000 to $5,000, making it well outside of the price range for many developing countries. If the Immunity Project succeeds in creating this vaccine, they have pledged to provide it to the public for free.

So far, the prototype vaccine has been administered to more than 400 mice with “positive results.” The immunity project is on the brink of their first human clinical trial, which has been fully funded through charitable donations.

2. Watsi: Crowdsourcing for Global Health
Started by Chase Watsi, this San Francisco-based startup is the first to apply the power of crowdsource fundraising to global health. Watsi is dedicated to connecting those with the power to give, to those who are looking for donations to fund aid with medical costs.

Because Watsi has raised money through separate channels to cover company expenses, 100 percent of the money raised through their web platform reaches the person who asks for it.

In 2013, Watsi received a $20,000 in seed capital from Y Combinator, an “elite accelerator program,” which has never accepted a nonprofit. The founder of the program, Paul Graham, read about Watsi in Hacker News. “I just knew it was going to be huge,” said Graham to the Wall Street Journal.

So far, Watsi has connected 13,290 people with 4,717 patients in 21 countries. They have raised the funds to pay for treatment for everything from fractured tibias to ovarian cyst surgery, and they show no signs of slowing down.

3. Kericure Liquid Bandages
Invented by PhD organic chemist and mother Dr. Keriann Greenhalgh, Kericure products are a unique brand of soothing, pain-free and breathable bandages.

These sprayable bandaids are designed not only to cover and sooth wounds, but to prevent infections by creating a skin-like polymer covering to the injury which immediately stops blood loss.

The unique liquid formula of Kericure, which is all natural and only includes two ingredients (water and a polyacrylate polymer), also gives these bandages the potential to heal skin conditions ranging from psoriasis and insect bites to diaper rash and eczema.

In addition to their mass marketed spray product, Kericure also introduced a professional grade “Advanced Seal” liquid bandage that is intended for surgical use. This intensified version of the product is intended for use during skin biopsies and closed surgical incisions that are products of infection.

This multifaceted infection preventative measure could have astronomically positive effects in developing countries where improperly treated injuries can often result in severe infections.

4. Eko Devices
Although they have yet to officially launch the product, Berkeley Eko Devices has developed Core, a stethoscope attachment that brings mobile technology into the checkup process.

Core is a handheld, portable device that attaches to a traditional stethoscope and allows the physician to record a patient’s heart sounds onto a mobile device through a pre-programmed app.

Once the heartbeat is recorded, it can then be sent out for a second opinion or seamlessly integrated into the patients medical record, creating a database of information for future inspection.

Core claims to “put the power of a cardiologist in every physician’s pocket,” and already has an extensive waiting list for the Core attachment. The company Eko Devices was also awarded the Emerging Health Technology People’s Choice Award by the American Heart Association.

The Core attachment was lauded by a panel of leading cardiologists for its ability “to address both the patient and the provider’s needs and it’s potential to improve patient outcomes with an innovative and novel approach.”

5. Veebot LLC
Veebot began when Stanford engineering master students Richard Harris and Joe Mygatt (who met while doing their undergrad at Princeton) were searching for a thesis project with the potential to make a lasting impact on biotechnology.

Their answer was Veebot, the world’s first automated blood drawing apparatus: essentially a robot arm that uses anatomic information and ultrasound imaging to hit the vein perfectly and sanitarily every time.

Veebot seeks to revolutionize the practice of drawing blood, something that has not been overhauled in more than one hundred years, making it perhaps the only form of medical technology that has remained unchanged by the digital age.

Although there are millions of needle-based medical procedures and tests performed every day, there is still a world of complications surrounding proper sanitation and training.

Healthcare workers often suffer up to 2000 “needle sticks” or accident pricks with needles a day, which can lead to serious dangers, especially in areas where diseases such as HIV/AIDS are prevalent.

Additionally, human error can result in the mislabeling of blood samples, which in itself is responsible for up to 170,000 adverse blood-related events per year.

“Some technicians have only a weekend of training,” reported Ann Japenga of the New York Times in 2006. “[They can be] practicing on a dummy arm on Saturday and sticking your vein on Monday.”

The Veebot electric arm seeks to eliminate the human error that can come from a poorly done needle insertion — something that anyone who has had to endure multiple blood drawing attempts while the physician searches for a vein can relate to.

Emma Betuel

Sources: New York Times, Veebot, Eko Devices, Kericure, Watsi 1, Watsi 2, WSJ, Immunity Project, AIDS, CNBC
Photo: Flickr

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