Month: September 2014

Engineering Startups Capture $10k Grant Funding

Secor Water, LLC and Dura Biotech, two student-led startup businesses based on technologies developed at UConn and nurtured through UConn Engineering’s Experiential Technology Entrepreneurship course, were awarded $10,000 grants from the inaugural CTNext Entrepreneur Innovation Awards(EIA) managed by Connecticut Innovations.

startups2aThe EIA (formerly Innovation Voucher) program awards competitive grants each month to promising startup businesses across Connecticut. Twenty-five startups applied for EIA funding in February. The applications were carefully vetted by a committee of entrepreneurship professionals at Connecticut Innovations, which selected six finalists, including Secor and Dura Biotech, for the presentation portion of the competition, which was held on February 27th at the Bijou Theater in Bridgeport. Before a panel of five expert judges – comprising company CEOs, mentors, investment professionals and other entrepreneurship gurus – a representative from each of the six startups presented a five-minute oral marketing “pitch” followed by three minutes of challenging questions from the panel. All six startup finalists garnered EIA funding; Secor and Dura Biotech were the only student-led startup award recipients.

“This was the first Entrepreneur Innovation Awards event and we couldn’t have asked for a better group of companies and innovative project ideas,” says Claire Leonardi, CEO of Connecticut Innovations. “The event assembled an enthusiastic group of entrepreneurs and startups that will contribute to the positive growth of businesses in Connecticut.”

CTNext is a statewide network of entrepreneurs, mentors, service providers and others involved in helping Connecticut’s most promising startups succeed and grow. EIA grants enable startups to invest in activities such as prototyping, performance and compliance testing, IP assessment, market research, licensing and other activities that will help the young businesses succeed.

Dura Biotech, headed by mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate Eric Sirois (B.S. Biomedical Engineering ’09), is developing the LowPro Valve, a transcatheter aortic valve (TAV) featuring a crimped size that is 40 percent smaller than any valve currently on the market or in clinical trials. The thinner leaflet is made possible by Dura Valve Leaflet Technology, a patent-pending stress-reducing leaflet design that was developed at the University of Connecticut’s Tissue Mechanics Lab. After it passes all regulatory hurdles, the LowPro Valve will enable more patients to undergo the safer trans-femoral TAV procedure. Dura Biotech, which is a UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP) participant, was founded by former UConn associate professor Wei Sun, a world expert in heart valve mechanics.

Sirois has been refining the company’s business approach and securing bridge funding since May 2012. In early 2013, he pitched the business before an audience of entrepreneurship experts associated with the Tolland-based XcellR8 group. Sirois notes that the company will continue proof of concept activities for the LowPro Valve technology before seeking formal FDA bench testing and animal trials. Dura Biotech will apply the grant money to transition the LowPro Valve from a prototype to a product ready for animal implantation. Commenting on the award, Sirois says, “This achievement is the result of years of hard work by our design, fabrication, and testing personnel. I am so proud of our team and what they have accomplished. I am also very grateful to the TIP mentors, Mary Anne Rooke and Paul Parker, and especially to Dr. Hadi Bozorgmanesh for their steady guidance along the way.”

Secor Water CEO Matthew Cremins (B.S. Mechanical Engineering ’13), who is pursuing an M.S. degree at UConn, and CTO Yanbing Guo, a post-doctoral researcher at UConn, co-founded the company in 2013. Their product is the Secor SmartWell+, which uses an advanced filtration system to purify tap water and then add minerals, flavors, and/or carbonation to create a custom-tailored beverage. The system incorporates a QR-code reader that stores subscriber profiles. In addition to their $10,000 award, Secor Water also won the judges’ award of an additional $2,000.

Cremins says the Secor team will use the grant monies to develop and manufacture a beta prototype that will be presented to the School of Engineering within several months. He notes, “This honor would not have been possible without the hard work of our entire Secor Water team. Special thanks to David Ritter, Dillon Jones, and Tomasz Walczak, whose industriousness and passion have elevated Secor to the next level. Yanbing and I are very grateful to be working alongside these talented individuals.”

“Eric and Matthew are two great examples of the talent coming from UConn,” says Leonardi. “We’re hoping this funding helps propel them to the next level and encourages other startups to apply for funding in the future.”

Both teams emerged from the Experiential Technology Entrepreneurship I and II course taught by Professor of Practice Dr. Hadi Bozorgmanesh. Read more here and here.


Tiny Heart Valve Has Big Potential for UConn Startup

An unlikely combination of biomedical engineering and meticulous sewing skills has led to an innovative heart valve replacement that could save countless lives.

Its maker, Dura Biotech, is a UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP) participant. Its CEO, Eric Sirois, received his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at UConn earlier this year.

This summer, Sirois and his research team enjoyed a particularly eventful week, when the company received two major awards, each worth $400,000. One was from the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund (CBIF); the second was a federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant. The funding will enable the team to begin testing the product.

Since the company was founded in 2012, Dura Biotech has focused on potentially game-changing innovations in the field of heart valves. One is the LowPro Valve, a transcatheter aortic valve 40 percent smaller than anything on the market.

Because the catheter enters the femoral artery in the groin, patients don’t need to undergo open heart surgery, a procedure that takes several weeks of recovery time and can pose great risks for many patients.

Smaller is important

Catheters are traditionally measured in units known as French (one is equal to about one-third of a millimeter). Those on the market today are about 22 French.

“The next generation is about 18,” says Sirois, “and ours is 14.” And with the recent funding, part of which will pay for animal testing, Sirois is confident they can bring the size down to 12 French.

Smaller is important. It has been estimated that about 17,000 patients this year can’t have the procedure because their arteries are too small for currently available catheters.

“We’re targeting older people, but we’re thinking about using it for children, too, because many children are born with heart defects, but current valves are too large for them,” he says.

The Dura Biotech team. (Christopher LaRosa/UConn Photo)

Sirois is a veteran of the U.S. Navy. While he was figuring out what he wanted to do in his civilian life, he learned that UConn had one of the leading biomedical engineering departments in the U.S. That appealed to him, and he came to the University in 2005.

“I like analyzing systems,” he says, “and I wanted to look at the body like a machine.”

During his graduate studies, he enrolled in the entrepreneur program, taught by Hadi Bozorgmanesh, professor of practice in the School of Engineering.

“I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, I just figured that you have to go out into industry for 15 years or so first and then come back,” Sirois says. “But Hadi has a whole different way of looking at it: ‘Don’t put off for one minute what you can start right now.’ So, we founded the company and I haven’t looked back since.”

Bozorgmanesh is confident Sirois can lead the company to success. He notes that while Sirois is “totally focused” on making Dura Biotech a success, he also spends time helping other start-ups and inspiring undergraduate students to become entrepreneurs.

Adaptive strategy

When Sirois founded Dura Biotech in 2012 with Wei Sun, a former associate professor at UConn, the original idea wasn’t to make a smaller valve, but a longer-lasting one (hence the “Dura” in the company’s name). They created the Dura Heart Valve, a valve that lasts four times longer than valves currently on the market.

Last October, Sirois and his team took the Dura Heart Valve to the biggest transcatheter conference in the U.S. The company’s poster was voted among the best, but drumming up interest in the product itself wasn’t so easy.

“We talked to the doctors – and they all didn’t care,” Sirois says. “Everyone agreed that it was indeed more durable. But they also pointed out that most of their patients are old, so the valve’s extended life span wasn’t a big draw.”

For an extra dose of discouragement, an investor told them that clinical trials specifically testing for durability take up to eight years.

“And they’re super-expensive,” Sirois says. “Instead of $7 million, it would cost about $300 million. No one’s going to invest in that. We were heartbroken, but some people suggested that if you could make it thicker and last four times as long, why not make it thinner and last the same amount of time?”

So they got to work on that. The secret is in the “crimped delivery” design, in which part of the valve’s material – the leaflet – is made thinner. With less material in the way, the valve can crimp more narrowly. A patent is pending on the technology.

Sewing up the solution

Assembling the design requires sewing together three of the valve’s main components. Considering the size of the components and the precision required, this is no easy task.

Sirois, who had learned to sew uniforms in the military, tried making the valves himself. But they are tiny, and they have to be perfect.

Jaclyn Mazzerella ’14 (ENG) works on the LowPro Valve. (Christopher LaRosa/UConn Photo)

So the team hired two lab technicians, Andrea Mandragouras and Jaclyn Mazzarella, who finally, after many, many attempts, perfected the necessary sewing technique.

The change in strategy paid off. Within three months, they had a prototype, a marketing strategy, and a marketing niche carved out. They soon won a $10,000 Entrepreneur Innovation Award from CT Next, and a $50,000 Third Bridge award from the quasi-state organization Connecticut Innovation. And now, they have an additional $800,000 in recent awards.

Sirois says the company hopes to raise seed investments of $2 to $3 million next year. He estimates that the company will need at least $10 million to get his device through regulatory approval in Europe.