Dress for Success, Automatically: IDG and ATV Wrap Big Bucks Around Robotic Wound Treatment
Think R2D2 meets information kiosk meets Coke machine. That’s the way Michael Greeley, general partner at IDG Ventures Boston, describes (I’d add “photocopier” to his description myself) the roughly waist-high, customized-bandage-dispensing robot on wheels he thinks will revolutionize wound treatment.
And he’s got 25 million reasons to hope the “revolutionize” part comes true. That’s because Greeley’s firm and the California arm of another local venture outfit, Advanced Technology Ventures, are the lead investors in a $25 million Series B financing round announced today by the company that makes the robot—Mountain View, CA-based PolyRemedy (Series A investor MedVenture Associates and new investor Harris & Harris Group also joined the round—and Greeley and ATV’s Tom Rodgers of the firm’s Palo Alto office will join the board). The idea, says Greeley, is that robots can automate much of the heavily manual tasks of preparing wound dressings, in much the same way previous automation technologies transformed other aspects of health care. “There’s a whole wave of robotic surgery, robotic drug dispensing, and this is just now robotic wound care,” he says. “And nobody’s doing it.”
It’s not hard to wrap your mind around the possibilities. Wound treatment, after all, is a sore subject for hospitals and other health care facilities, care-givers, and patients alike. Anything that can make it easier, more efficient, and more effective —as PolyRemedy thinks it can—holds tremendous financial potential.
The core market in this case is the treatment of diabetic ulcers and other chronic wounds that Greeley says afflict a half million people in the U.S. who need treatment each day. This aspect of medical care, which by itself represents what Greeley calls a “huge” market, historically falls to nurses who pull gauze off a shelf and often hand-cut a dressing to fit a patient’s wound—and the IDG ventures partner says it hasn’t changed much in more than a century. “The wound care field just was antiquated. It was out of the revolutionary war,” he says. That, Greeley adds, makes it “poised for automation.”
PolyRemedy was founded to do just that in late 2004 by chief technology officer Oleg Siniaguine, a serial entrepreneur and inventor who has also held senior research or managerial positions at Hughes Aircraft, AZ Corporation, and Moscow University. (The company closed a Series A round, apparently of a few million dollars, the next year.) A key to the firm’s approach is what’s described as a nano-fiber technology that forms the “gauze” of a dressing. Some wounds need to be kept moist, others must stay dry—and some actually need to be moist in one spot and dry in another. In theory, at least, the nano-fibers allow antiseptics and other medicines to be precisely applied to the specific spots where they’re needed. And, says CEO Dan Eckert, “we have the ability to adjust the physical properties of the dressing on demand.”
Here’s how it works, at least in theory. Drop-down menus on the machine’s (it seems more of an automated machine than a classic robot) screen allow a nurse, doctor, or other health care practitioner to input factors such as the length, width, and depth of a wound, as well as its level of drainage and, eventually, the type of medicine that should be dispensed on the dressing. In less than two minutes, the machine will then cough up a precisely sized, multi-layer dressing in a heat-sealed, sterilized packet that the health care provider opens and then places on the wound. As Greeley describes it, “You kind of press play and a minute later it drops it out like you ordered a can of Coke.”
Creating dressings with superior physical properties to those currently on the market and cutting them to size—and in future versions applying medicine exactly where needed on the bandages—-could minimize waste and improve the effectiveness of treatment, the firm believes. As an added benefit, although the company isn’t emphasizing this aspect of the system yet, the system is being developed to store the information that nurses enter about the changing size and geometry of a wound as if it were a series of diagnostic snapshots, helping medical personnel to track the healing process and assess what treatments work best—and potentially providing the documentation to justify Medicare reimbursements. In some cases, Greeley notes, a nurse might take a picture of a wound with a digital camera, download the image wirelessly into the device, and let the robot figure out the size of the dressing—skipping part of the input process. Greeley says the machine can store 30 days’ worth of supplies.
PolyRemedy’s machine is being tested at two facilities right now, with a half-dozen or so beta sites planned for later this year, says Eckert, a health care veteran who joined the firm in August to help lead it to commercialization. “We plan commercial launch in 2009,” he says.