Ultrasound waves can be engineered to do all kinds of nifty things, from creating high-resolution images of developing fetuses to non-invasive ways of busting up kidney stones. Now a Seattle-area startup called Kona Medical has raised a load of venture capital to pursue a big dream—ultrasound that could treat millions of people with high blood pressure.
The Bellevue, WA-based company, which has kept a low profile since its founding in 2009, is making a splash today by announcing a $30 million Series C venture financing. The investment is being led by what Kona calls “a large medical device company” that doesn’t want to be named, while the rest of the money comes from existing investors Essex Woodlands Health Ventures, Morgenthaler Ventures, Domain Associates, and BioStar. The 18-person company, founded by president and CEO Mike Gertner of Essex Woodlands, plans to use the cash to add more R&D staff at offices in the Bay Area and in Bellevue, WA.
Kona’s idea is to use ultrasound to zap overactive nerves around the kidneys that are involved in many of the toughest-to-treat cases of high blood pressure. High blood pressure is already treated with cheap generic drugs that work well for millions of people, which help to minimize their risk of future heart attacks, strokes, and death from heart disease. But an estimated 10 million people have what’s called “resistant hypertension,” which means either that the existing drugs don’t work well enough, or they can’t stick with the treatment schedule.
Researchers have had various ideas over the years, with drugs or devices, on how to treat these resistant hypertension patients, without much success. But Mountain View, CA-based Ardian electrified the field in November 2010, when it showed that its radio-frequency device on the tip of a catheter was able to cauterize those renal nerves, and deliver striking improvements in high blood pressure. Less than one week after presenting that data, Ardian was acquired by medical device giant Medtronic (NYSE: MDT) for $800 million, an impressive sum for a medical device company with no revenue at the time. The clinical findings, and the acquisition, inspired a number of competitors to dive in with similar technologies for treating resistant hypertension, which Bloomberg News recently said is shaping up as a potential new multi-billion market.
“This could be among the biggest medical device markets in history,” says John Bowers, Kona’s new chief operating officer, and a former senior vice president at Bothell, WA-based SonoSite.
For Kona, the news from Ardian provided great timing. That’s because Kona envisions using a different technology to achieve a similar goal. Instead of threading a catheter through the femoral artery in the thigh—a minimally invasive procedure—Kona is attempting to use non-invasive ultrasound waves from the back, that are focused to the precise depth and location to cauterize the renal nerves.
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