Nomir to Microbes: We’re Out to Get You
In a town like Boston, where so many new companies are churned out, assembly-line style, by the same universities, serial entrepreneurs, consulting firms, and venture investors, it’s refreshing to find a startup that hews more closely to the classic (if largely mythical) formula of lone inventor plus fortuitous discovery plus cash from some wealthy individuals equals new tech company. That’s essentially the arithmetic that produced Nomir Medical Technologies, a medical-device firm founded in 2003 by a young dentist named Eric Bornstein (the inventor in this equation) and David Blumenthal, a consultant who had worked in plastic-parts manufacturing and was a friend of Bornstein’s from synagogue.
I skirted Tuesday’s Red Sox parade traffic to visit Nomir’s headquarters in a surprisingly swanky office complex just off I-95 in Newton. There I met with the firm’s CEO, Richard Burtt, a veteran of IBM, Medtronic, and a handful of startups who was brought in by Ernst & Young in 2004 to help Nomir raise money. (Hey, nobody navigates the Boston-area tech scene without crossing one or two of the conventional pathways, do they?)
Pulling up a chair in Bornstein’s Star Trek-paraphernalia-packed office, Burtt describes a technique Bornstein had developed during his years as a dentist to battle the bacteria that can wreak havoc on teeth and gums by essentially cooking the offending microbes with laser light. I’ll resist the urge to draw the connection between healing laser beams and Star Trek, except to say that even when he’s not actually in the office, as was the case on Tuesday, Bornstein generates a powerful mad scientist/inventor/tinkerer/geek vibe (in a good way).
The dental technology is definitely on the list of products Nomir aims to commercialize, as a noninvasive alternative to periodontal surgery, but it’s another platform the company’s working on that Burtt seemed really excited about—and that’s where the fortuitous discovery comes in. In the course of trawling though the scientific literature (from Burtt’s description, this sounds like a habit of Bornstein’s) Bornstein came across a Princeton physics dissertation in which the author warned scientists studying bacteria with lasers to avoid two particular wavelengths of infrared light, because they would kill the microbes. Bornstein, of course, was a big fan of killing microbes, and set about investigating and patenting the idea that these wavelengths could be used to kill bacteria—and fungi, it turns out—for a host of applications. (Unlike the dental technique Bornstein had developed, this process does not involve heat but rather a mechanism that Burtt declined to describe which evidently kills microbial cells while leaving human cells untouched.)
A few years and some $6 million dollars in angel financing later (half of it convertible debt, half of it a Series A round that should close in the next couple of weeks) Nomir is poised to commercialize its first products, according to Burtt, who describes 2008 as “our coming out year.” (Bornstein, now in his early 40s, sold his dental practice in 2006 to work at Nomir full time.) First up is an infrared-light-based device for treating oncychomycosis, the fungal infection that turns toenails into thick crusty yellow eyesores for some 35 million U.S. patients. By the end of November 2008, Burtt says, Nomir expects to have FDA clearance for a device capable of wiping out the infection in three six-minute sessions in a podiatrist’s or dermatologist’s office over the course of a month.
A little further back in the pipeline is a perhaps more serious application of the infrared-light technology as a means of zapping methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)—an increasingly notorious bacterium responsible for thousands of deaths a year in the U.S. In December, Burtt says, Nomir will launch a trial in New York City of a device to kill MRSA in the nose, where many people carry the microbe without knowing it. If that works, he says, the company will pursue additional anti-MRSA applications, such as preventing infection by eliminating the bug from a surgical field before closing the patient up and treating established infections.
As we start to wrap up our conversation, Burtt alludes to one more, intriguing, application of Nomir’s two wavelengths of infrared light—what the company calls “aesthetic reshaping.” Turns out that the light boosts fat cells’ rate of fat breakdown, or lipolysis, Burtt says. He doesn’t want to say more than that on the record, but this patent application contains a few more hints about how Nomir believes the process works and what the company might do with it. (Think clothing or a wrap rigged with LEDs that beam infrared light through the skin to help reduce the fat in the tissue beneath. Sounds a lot more appealing than liposuction.)
For his part, Burtt says that Nomir is the most exciting of the startups he’s been involved with—and that it will be his last. Nine out of 10 medical device companies wind up being acquired, he says. Nomir’s aim is to be one of the nine.