MIT Spinout Semprus BioSciences Looks for Strong Bonds with Medical-Device Companies After Closing $8M Series A

12/22/08

David Lucchino doesn’t like to use the word “coating” to describe the technology under development at his Cambridge, MA-based startup, Semprus Biosciences. Semprus, which was spun out of famous MIT inventor Bob Langer’s lab in 2007, is in the early stages of providing surfaces for medical devices engineered to fight bugs, prevent unhealthy blood clots, or promote tissue regeneration.

Semprus last week announced it closed an $8 million Series A round of venture capital co-led by previous backer 5AM Ventures, which has offices in Waltham, MA, and Menlo Park, CA, and new investor Pangaea Ventures, of New Jersey and Vancouver. Lucchino, CEO of Semprus, plans to use the new capital to advance the firm’s technology. And now I understand why “coatings” is a taboo word at Semprus.

When Lucchino hears “medical device coatings,” he says, he thinks of the silver-based antimicrobial coatings or coatings that leach heparin to prevent blood clots. Semprus uses polymers that form covalent chemical bonds with the surfaces of plastic devices like catheters or metal devices like bone plates and screws. Covalent bonds—for those who don’t remember high school chemistry or didn’t read Luke’s recent story on Avila Therapeutics—are among the strongest in nature.

With these covalent bonds, Semprus’ materials are intended to function on the surface of medical devices for up to 90 days, Lucchino says. That duration beats silver-based coatings, which wear off in a matter of a few days, he says. In the antimicrobial market, Semprus competes with Agion Technologies, a Wakefield, MA-based provider of silver-based coatings for medical devices and numerous consumer products. (I actually bought a pair of waterproof boots coated with Agion’s materials last month.)

But Lucchino (who is the nephew of Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino) doesn’t want Semprus to become another coatings company, which in some cases means selling materials in bulk to manufacturers. One route to commercialize the firm’s surface technology, he says, would be to co-develop a product with a medical devices manufacturer. He is now in discussions with potential partners.

Lucchino says he believes that catheters and other devices surfaced with Semprus’s materials would fetch more money than those without it. Why? Such devices wouldn’t, in theory, need to be replaced as often as others, and would help avoid expenses due to infections or clotting. “I think the universe is changing,” Lucchino says. “I think the delivery of healthcare is being measured through an efficiency lens.”

There are certainly some who would disagree with Lucchino on that point, but growing U.S. investments in electronic health records and other measures to trim healthcare spending do indicate a move toward efficiency.

Also, give credit to Lucchino and Semprus for closing a first round of financing in an ugly market for early stage venture rounds. (The startup, formerly known as SteriCoat, had previously raised $2.5 million.) And Semprus’s new backer, Pangaea Ventures, is making its first healthcare investment with this deal, Lucchino told me. 5AM Ventures became the first institutional investor in the company last year, and 5AM managing partner Scott Rocklage became company chairman.

Lucchino first spoke to me about his plans to close this venture round in spring 2007, after he and MIT-trained chemical engineer Chris Loose, chief scientific officer of Semprus, won the MIT $100K business plan contest with the pitch for their startup. Even then, Lucchino and Loose were anxious to build a company. Now we’ll see what they can do.

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