January 13, 2021
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A steady hand is poised over a patient on the operating table. After years of back problems, they are undergoing the life-changing surgery and bone graft treatment (bone regeneration) needed for a pain-free future. However, instead of using the typical “hammer and chisel” method to collect bone graft, doctors will be able to make a small incision with a scalpel and harvest bone graft with a less invasive device instead. This minimizes additional post-surgical pain without limiting bone graft results.
Such is the vision of Avitus Orthopaedics, a medical device company dedicated to developing the most novel instruments for minimally invasive surgery on the market. Their Avitus™ Bone Harvester has already yielded excellent results in harvesting bone grafts, and Propel(x) recently had the opportunity to speak with CEO Neil Shah about this exciting new technology, the early fundraising challenges they faced along the way, and how they’re poised to change the orthopedic surgical market.
Propel(x): To get started, tell me a bit about Avitus.
Neil Shah: Avitus is a startup focused on developing surgical instruments for minimally invasive surgery, and we’re currently focusing on the orthopedics market. For example, a lot of times spine surgeons will do spinal fusion procedures where they’ll access the vertebrae of the patient and then they’ll put in screws and rods to stabilize the spine. But then surgeons also need to get bone graft and use that bone graft to help heal the vertebrae and fuse them together. Traditionally what they’ve done is make a second very invasive incision over the pelvic bone to get that bone graft.
Often times we hear surgeons say that their patients go in with back pain, but come out with hip pain because of the secondary harvesting procedure. We sought to develop a technology that provides a streamlined, minimally invasive way to do that secondary procedure in a very quick manner, in a manner that does not require a large incision but still allows surgeons to get that bone graft for their primary procedure. We recently brought our first product to the market. There’s a host of different applications for this bone graft and the harvesting procedure that accompanies it.
Propel(x): How did this idea come about?
Neil Shah: Avitus came out of a graduate program that my co-founder Maxim and I were a part of at Johns Hopkins. Part of the program was to go and do rotations in different departments at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and try to find unmet clinical needs. The inspiration came to us while observing orthopedic surgeons. We repeatedly heard from them: “You know, if you guys can solve this bone graft harvesting problem, that would be a really big benefit to patients.”
Propel(x): And how is this technology a leap vis-a-vis the current state of the industry?
Neil Shah: Essentially our technology enables surgeons to go in, minimally invasively, to a boney region and carve and cut and collect in different directions to maximize the volume of bone graft they get. And it’s coupled with a suction mechanism that enables surgeons to draw bone graft and bone marrow out of the patient’s body, then conveniently store it in the handle of the device for them to access it when they need to use it for their primary procedure.
Propel(x): It sounds like many disciplines have come together to make Avitus a reality. Can you tell us a bit about you and your cofounders background?
Neil Shah: Maxim and I both have engineering backgrounds. I did my undergrad in Biomedical Engineering down at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and Maxim did his in Mechanical Engineering at University of Connecticut. We met each other during our graduate program at Johns Hopkins. The graduate program is called The Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design, and it focuses on medical device engineering and commercialization.
Propel(x): How big is your team now?
Neil Shah: The three spine surgeons at Johns Hopkins that were part of the founding team are members of our Scientific Advisory Board.
We’ve also recently brought on a VP of sales and marketing who has over 30 years of experience in the space, specifically in medical devices used in the spine. We also have a team of engineers who are extremely passionate, energetic, and very smart folks.
Propel(x): Tell us a bit about what your funding process was like?
Neil Shah: We were fortunate to become part of the National Science Foundation’s SBIR portfolio – that was our first big stage of funding during our seed round. We also had initially gotten a lot of support from Johns Hopkins and the state of Maryland. Eventually, we launched our Series A round.
Connecticut Innovations was our lead investor, and from there we brought on additional investors, mostly angels and other private institutes. Propel(x) was part of our Series A syndicate. In addition to that, we have also put together a lot of additional non-dilutive funding through grants from the National Science Foundation, as well as support from the state of Connecticut through its various small business initiatives.
Propel(x): What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a deep-technology startup?
Neil Shah: There’s no question about it: fundraising is a huge challenge in the medical device space. A portion of it was because of macro-level trends in terms of ongoing changes in the healthcare industry. It’s also more difficult to attract investors to medical devices company with regulatory hurdles and longer than usual lead times to profitability.
Propel(x): Why did you decide to fundraise via Propel(x)?
Neil Shah: We were approached by the CEO and founder of Propel(x), Swati Chaturvedi, who heard our pitch, and she introduced us to the platform. Propel(x) helped us revise our material and strengthen our story and have a platform to answer investor questions about our company and technology.
Propel(x): What tips do you have for other deep tech start-ups when it comes to fundraising?
Neil Shah: Spend a lot of time upfront trying to understand who the right target is for the product that you are pitching. Not all investment sources are created equal, and picking the right target is going to determine how successful your fundraising is.
There are also a lot of different types of sources–they all have their own niches and sets of criteria, and it’s really a balance of being tenacious about sources that are reasonable, but also being discerning with tire-kickers or investors that don’t fit the right criteria for your company.
Propel(x): If Avitus succeeds, how will society be impacted?
Neil Shah: Our success will continue to drive the medical device industry towards better patient outcomes and reduced healthcare costs through minimally invasive surgery.