Healionics Gets Kudos in Congress, Contracts from Companies

8/12/08Follow @gthuang

When I stopped by Buddy Ratner’s office at the University of Washington yesterday, he looked like a proud papa. He had just gotten word that the National Science Foundation, in a report to Congress, is using one of his group’s companies, Healionics, as an example of a successful biomedical startup. Here at Xconomy, we’ve come across Healionics quite a bit recently, as mentioned to us by the Technology Alliance’s Susannah Malarkey, and as funded by a Washington Technology Center research grant.

Ratner, a professor of bioengineering (and an Xconomist), showed me the laudatory “nugget” from the NSF report, which calls Healionics a “most promising” biotech firm based on “highly innovative, cross-disciplinary” research, and an “excellent example” of how to transfer innovative biomedical technology to industry. “Healionics is poised to enter the emerging and potentially very large international market for biomaterials that enhance the biocompatibility and performance of implanted medical devices,” the report reads.

Founded in 2007, Redmond, WA-based Healionics is one of a half-dozen companies spun out of the University of Washington Engineered Biomaterials (UWEB) center, an 11-year, $40 million effort funded by NSF that finished up last year. Its main objective was to spur innovation by addressing the problems of medical devices (a $100 billion-plus industry) and how they heal in the body—and NSF looks to be satisfied with the results. “They want to show Congress there is impact from the money they’re investing,” says Ratner, the director of UWEB.

The technology of Healionics began as a Ph.D. research project in Ratner’s lab around 2000. Every year, says Ratner, some 50,000 people in the U.S. die from catheter-related infections, and more broadly there are about 325,000 complaints about biocompatibility of medical devices. When a foreign object is inserted through the skin, the body’s natural defenses form a capsule of tissue around it or work to eject it, which wreaks havoc with any device’s operation and can cause infection. So Ratner and his student Andrew Marshall came up with a type of biomaterial that could be used to coat an implanted device and help it integrate better with the body’s tissues.

The key to the material is giving it lots of pores—holes that interact with the body’s cells and through which blood vessels and tissue can grow. It turns out there is an optimal size for the pores too, about 35 micrometers, or half the diameter of a human hair. Any bigger or smaller, and the healing properties aren’t as good. “We found a sweet spot,” Ratner says.

In turn, Healionics seems to have found a sweet spot in its business model. The company, led by CEO Robert Brown, a nine-year Microsoft veteran with an M.B.A. from UW, uses its porous-biomaterial technology to improve other companies’ medical devices, but doesn’t market any products of its own. As a result, it collects royalties on other companies’ sales without having to invest in expensive R&D or new clinical trials, so it can get by on smaller amounts of funding. Healionics has about 10 contracts with other companies, including TRBioSurgical, an Arizona-based biomaterials firm that is developing a glaucoma implant for veterinary use.

Ratner, who serves as chair of Healionics’ science advisory board, seems excited about the startup’s longer-term prospects. “They’re very successful,” he says of the company. But he’s always thinking bigger. His next step? Putting together a consortium of biotech and biomedical companies that will collaborate with UW and help fund R&D in materials, devices, and tissue engineering—and just maybe speed up the innovation chain that much more.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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