Calibra, Inspired by Inventor With Diabetes, Homes in on Cheap, Easy Way to Deliver Insulin

1/24/11Follow @xconomy

Clif Alferness has made a long and decorated career out of inventing medical devices. But until about five years ago, he never thought seriously about a practical invention for his own illness—Type 1 diabetes. Now, after years in stealth mode, the latest startup he helped launch is on the verge of creating a new category of device that delivers insulin cheaply, easily, and effectively.

The company, founded as Seattle Medical Technologies in 2006, is now based in Redwood City, CA, and goes by the name Calibra Medical. CEO Jeff Purvin, one of the featured speakers at “San Diego’s Fight Against Diabesity” coming up this Thursday, recently gave me a demo of how this new technology is designed to work. The big idea is to stake out a middle ground between the cheapest and easiest options for delivering insulin (syringes, pre-filled pens) and the more discreet, but complex and expensive alternatives (insulin pumps).

“The mantra that Jeff repeats at every opportunity is ‘small and simple,’” Alferness says. “But, in fact, it is very difficult to make something simple that works really well. That is what the engineers at Calibra have accomplished. It is small and simple for the patient, but works really, really well. I am anxious to try it myself since I inject insulin many times daily using syringes.”

Purvin adds: “We’ve really got something nobody else has.”

Entrepreneurs like Alferness and Purvin have been trying for years, and mostly failing, to deliver insulin a more convenient way than with a syringe. No one has had any luck in the market with making insulin inhalable or turning it into a nasal spray or something else less invasive. An estimated 6 million people in the U.S. rely almost entirely on classic vials and syringes, or more convenient pre-filled syringes to get their insulin.

Calibra CEO Jeff Purvin

Many more people are heading down this road to insulin dependency, as one leading insurer, UnitedHealth Group, has warned that about half of the U.S. population could have diabetes or pre-diabetes by 2020. So anyone who can invent a better mousetrap for delivering insulin, cheap and easy enough for millions of people to use, obviously could have a megahit.

Calibra got its start when Alferness, Daniel Hawkins, and John Adams put their heads together on a new concept for insulin delivery in about October 2006. The company got going with $8.6 million in Series A venture capital financing from Three Arch Partners and Frazier Healthcare Ventures. It has now raised two more rounds of capital that have brought the company’s total financing to $44 million, Purvin says. Canaan Partners and InterSouth Partners have joined the syndicate.

The R&D effort has resulted in a pair of FDA approvals of Calibra’s system, which is branded under the name Finesse. The tool is cleared to deliver two major forms of insulin—Novo Nordisk’s Novolog, and Eli Lilly’s Humalog. Calibra hasn’t yet started marketing its device in the U.S., because it wants to make one more design modification to bring down the cost of raw materials more, so it can … Next Page »

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