The research park’s prime location and cluster of device companies delivers resources and support to growing ventures. Meet three of them.
Published 3/10/22 on Technical.ly Baltimore
In 2003, a group of University of Maryland officials approached then-mayor Martin O’Malley with a development plan for vacant land along West Baltimore Street, adjacent to University of Maryland, Baltimore’s campus. Today, this ambitious project, the University of Maryland BioPark, boasts nearly three dozen life science companies, ranging from leading global firms to mature companies to early-stage ventures.
In recent years, the BioPark has attracted a cluster of early-stage medical device companies. For these young companies, the BioPark offers something even more important than a corporate headquarters: a location on UMB’s campus and in the heart of Maryland’s biomed ecosystem.
“The real magnet to coming to our research park is the University of Maryland, Baltimore,” said UM BioPark Executive Director Jane Shaab. “As a leading academic medical center, the quality and scope of research going on here is what companies want to access.”
The BioPark serves as a connection center for entrepreneurs and companies. Its wealth of resources and proximity to prominent life science institutions such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Institutes of Health help biotech companies develop their devices and form critical relationships.
Meet three BioPark-based companies innovating in their fields:
NextStep Robotics CEO Brad Hennessie noticed a strange trend in his research team’s study when working as a research intern for the VA’s Maryland Exercise and Robotics Center of Excellence in 2008.
They wanted to learn if stroke patients with impairments and Parkinson’s disease patients could exercise at a similar level as healthy patients. So they had stroke patients walk on a treadmill for 30 to 50 minutes at a time while their heart rate was monitored.
“We could only progress them so much in their exercise intensity due to limitations that were purely biomechanical, meaning they couldn’t lift their foot up in order to keep up with the treadmill or walk up a higher grade,” Hennessie said.
Spurred by that challenge, Hennessie’s NextStep is a physical therapy technology company that offers a robotic ankle training device called AMBLE for people suffering from foot drop — a condition that prevents people from lifting the front part of the foot due to weakness or paralysis of the muscles in the foot. It affects millions of people each year, especially stroke patients or people over age 65.
In his research, CSO Dr. Richard Masko, a University of Maryland School of Medicine professor of neurology, identified footdrop as the primary biomechanical issue that prevented stroke patients from progressing their exercise. He partnered with CTO Dr. Anindo Roy, who was trained in rehabilitation robotics at MIT under the leading pioneers of the field Dr. Neville Hogan and Dr. Hemano (Igo) Krebs, to build a device that could address this issue.
The startup officially launched in 2017, with the founding team including Hennessie, Macko, Roy, and retired scientist Larry Forester.
“We weren’t initially trying to create a product or a company,” Hennessie said. “Talking to [clinical trial] patients doing their grocery shopping for the first time in years is when it became something of a want and a desire to create a vehicle in the form of a company to really push this product forward.”
Seeing an opening at the BioPark, NextStep joined this past summer. Having a large, defined space was a massive win, as NextStep was able to set up a gait laboratory that allows for motion analysis captures of research participants.
Even before NextStep became a tenant, BioPark representatives introduced Hennessie to investors. The BioPark strives to expose companies to funding opportunities through connecting them with the Maryland Momentum Fund, Maryland Department of Commerce, TEDCO and other funders in the region.
The AMBLE device is currently undergoing critical performance and safety testing from the FDA. Hennessie said after passing that testing, he hopes to register it as a Class II exempt exercise device and have a soft market launch within the next two years.
“The medical device market, particularly in this region, is getting ready to explode,” he said. “Money is starting to believe in this market. In terms of a local market, there’s a tremendous upshoot.”
ARMR Systems founder Chibueze Ihenacho was on his way to a sporting event at his high school in 2009 when he fell asleep at the wheel, causing his car to hit a bend and flip six times before landing in an embankment.
The glass windshield collapsed inward just a few inches from his face, but he was able to get out and make his way to a nearby hospital. Ihenacho, who is Nigerian-American, became aware of traumatic motor accidents happening like this in Nigeria and across Africa through discussions with family members and African entrepreneurs.
“Those are the experiences that sparked my passion for medical technology and health equity,” he said. “Over time, these events compelled me to focus on trauma care and building an impactful solution through ARMR.”
ARMR Systems is a wearable tech company that manufactures the JT5 System. This novel low-weight, tourniquet-style device acts as a “life jacket for your cardiovascular system,” allowing users to flexibly respond to vascular injury anytime, anywhere. It’s designed to be worn under body armor when on a battlefield, where access to advanced medical support is often not available.
ARMR moved its headquarters from Boston to join the BioPark in 2017, and has expanded twice since joining the BioPark. The opportunity to be in a robust medtech ecosystem spurred the move.
“Investors in the mid-Atlantic and around here are very comfortable with the DoD, government, and law enforcement agencies, so they get it,” Ihenacho said. “Regulatory clearances and approvals bring a unique set of challenges so having partners with a deep understanding of that environment is really helpful. It can be harder to find those partners in other parts of the country.”
The proximity to Fort Detrick, a US Army medical command facility, was also a big influence in making the transition, allowing Ihenacho to gain face time with his partners within the Department of Defense. With a nearly 2,000-square-foot space in the BioPark and access to needed hardware, ARMR has been able to speed up its research and development.
Moving forward, Ihenacho looks to hire more engineers and refine the JT5 so that it can be approved by the FDA and Army before being manufactured at scale.
“We want to recruit great people to join our team and to Baltimore in order to further invest in the BioPark community and to build our company here,” he said.
JuneBrain founder Dr. Samantha Scott was pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering before she went from being just a scientist to being a patient, too: In 2017, she was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder that causes weakness in the skeletal muscles.
She had been feeling sick for several years before being officially diagnosed, but she quickly learned that this stressful experience wasn’t uncommon.
“One of the challenges I had was interacting with my providers,” she said. “I typically can only see them once a year. That’s really hard on a patient. A lot of patients and providers across neurological and retinal disease have similar stories. I’m building JuneBrain as a solution to that problem.”
The seven-employee company is developing an eye-scanning device that allows providers to identify and treat eye and brain diseases outside of the clinic. The first prototype was completed in early 2020, and JuneBrain moved into the BioPark’s Lion Brothers building in August of 2021.
“Making this technology more accessible is empowering to patients,” Dr. Scott said. “It’s giving them access to advanced technology that’s usually in specialized clinics and allowing them to use it on a regular basis.”
Joining the BioPark was a no-brainer for Dr. Scott since most of the company’s partners are nearby, and she relished the chance to work in a larger space that hosts other medtech startups.
Shaab stressed that having other biotech startups in close proximity helps them grow as they are able to exchange thoughts and experiences.
“There’s a lot of value in the peer-to-peer relationships that develop in the BioPark,” Shaab said. “You’re among a community of founders and scientific officers so they garner a lot of value in getting to know each other as leaders and having candid conversations.”
JuneBrain aims to receive FDA clearance and launch the device to market in early 2023.