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How to Build a Men’s Health Startup: MHB Labs Gets Romulus Cash

Xconomy Boston — 

If you watch your share of bad TV, you know how big the market is for erectile dysfunction, low testosterone, and urination problems. In other words, men’s health issues—and the drugs that supposedly treat them.

What might surprise you is that a tech investor has just made an interesting deal in the sector. Boston-area venture firm Romulus Capital has led a $1.1 million seed financing round for MHB Labs, a young startup developing drug-delivery techniques and devices aimed at solving men’s health problems.

Chief executive Ravi Kacker calls it a virtual biotech, which means its advisors and partners are spread out, but it also means a couple of doctors are running the operation out of their clinic.

MHB Labs was spun out of Men’s Health Boston, a clinical group that includes Kacker, a urologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School who also has expertise in biomaterials and bioengineering. Kacker’s co-founder is Abraham Morgentaler, the director of Men’s Health Boston and a leading figure in the field.

MHB Labs is looking to license its first product, called AndroSphere, to pharmaceutical companies. From what I can tell, the product includes a novel drug-delivery system; it can deliver a large protein drug (to manage sexual dysfunction, say) by a single injection that lasts several months, Kacker says. The idea is to make delivering drugs for men’s health cheaper, easier, safer, and more efficient for patients who don’t respond to popping a pill or wearing a patch or gel.

“This is fertile ground for new products,” Kacker says. “There are only a few delivery technologies, scattered around the world, and they’re not really plugged into clinical needs outside of cancer and hematology.”

The company isn’t giving many specifics yet, but its goal is to use advanced materials and fast processes like 3D printing to build delivery systems “that can maximize the benefit of drugs,” Kacker says. One device he has worked on with a team at MIT is a syringe that can store individual parts of a drug cocktail for erectile dysfunction in a stable way (without refrigeration), and then reconstitute the cocktail; with such a device, a patient who can’t take Viagra could inject himself while away from home, for example.

That’s not a new technology per se, but the rapid iteration process—and the ability to test such devices in a clinical setting—speaks to an emerging collaboration between clinicians, materials scientists, and pharma companies that could make a wider range of drugs available to the masses.

Indeed, the bigger idea is to tap into a wave of biologics—large, expensive, complex-molecule drugs made in living systems—that will go off patent in the coming years and, presumably, become much cheaper. So, beyond things like male infertility and sexual dysfunction, a big market could potentially open up for a company offering better ways to deliver generic drugs.

Which brings us back to why Romulus Capital got involved. The big reasons are the global market size for men’s health and the founders’ expertise in the field. Romulus founder and managing partner Krishna Gupta adds that MHB Labs is “operating in a lean manner,” and that “people are going to spend” on men’s health products. (It probably helps that Gupta studied materials science as an MIT undergrad, so he can grasp what goes into the company’s drug-delivery systems.)

“We see an opportunity to build a broad platform creating various men’s health products and we want others who are working on specific products to come find us,” Gupta says in an e-mail.

Still, the company could be seen as a slight departure for Romulus, which raised a $50 million fund last year and has invested in tech startups like E la Carte, Placester, The Tap Lab, and Humanyze. On the health-tech side, the firm has invested in Ginger.io, Cohealo, and Allurion Technologies, a medical-device startup going after the obesity market.

Gupta notes that both Allurion and MHB Labs fit the right profile for investment. For one thing, neither is a “massive biotech science project,” for which Romulus would not be big or patient enough, he says. “We prefer to work with companies where it’s more of an engineering problem rather than a pure science problem.”

Nevertheless, MHB Labs will face engineering challenges, as well as the need to build partnerships with pharma companies, get buy-in from urologists and men’s health professionals, and, of course, find enough paying customers. Romulus, in thinking differently from its tech-investor peers, is banking that an experienced medtech team will sail past those obstacles and into open waters.