Vena Medical Co-founders

Vena Medical is ready to change the face of radiology

Between the two co-founders of Vena Medical, there are seven physicians in their immediate families alone. It’s no wonder that as Mechanical Engineering students working on their Fourth Year Design Project, they chose to innovate a medical device that would change the way physicians perform radiology. Michael Phillips and Phil Cooper have created a forward viewing imaging microcatheter that goes into veins and arteries, helping physicians navigate inside the body. Their microcatheter makes intravascular procedures faster, easier, and safer. We sat down with Michael to talk more about their MedTech device, and the fascinating field of radiology.

How did you learn about the problem that inspired the microcatheter?

MP: Phil’s dad is an interventional radiologist, one of the physicians that do this type of procedure. We were doing our Fourth Year Design Project, and he came to us and described how doctors are navigating now. They inject iodine dye into the veins and arteries of the patients and use an x-ray to see where their veins and arteries are. There are lots of problems with this as you can imagine; x-rays are bad for both patients and physicians, and the iodine contrast is toxic for kidneys. It actually prevents some patients from getting these procedures when they have lower kidney function. Our goal is to make the microcatheter as similar as possible to tools they currently use while providing physicians with an entirely new perspective by adding visualization.

What stage of development are you in?

MP: We were just down in Texas with TMCx, which is a MedTech accelerator with Texas Medical Centre. While we were there we managed to talk with Dr. Billy Cohn and told him we were looking for an animal study, and he said: “October 31, see you then”. We had like 30 seconds to talk to him! We made a new design, a high fidelity prototype which was 2mm in diameter, and we’re looking to get it down to 1mm in diameter, and we performed our first animal study.

During the study, we went into the femoral artery of the calf and went down the leg through the popliteal artery by the knee. The nurses had their hands on our prototype, which was pretty delicate and an early-on prototype for us, and so we had one nurse pulling on one side, the tech pulling on the other, and we were so worried they were going to break it the whole time! Once we got it into the artery they turned it on and the camera was red, which was good because that indicated the device wasn’t damaged. We got the physician to inject saline into the back end, and it cleared the vessel for us to see. The whole room went quiet when they could see it; it was a huge success for us.

How do you think your personal inspiration has helped to develop the company?

MP: Getting involved in the entrepreneurship community is what helped me a lot. I started at Bartesian as a co-op student in my second year, and they had a prototype that was made out of plywood. We went to China that term, and when we went you could walk across the street and grab any component that you could imagine! We could build prototypes insanely fast – every month we had a new high fidelity prototype. By the end of my term, we had a Kickstarter. Product Development was my responsibility because it was only the two co-founders and me. I caught the entrepreneurial bug that way. After that, I tried taking other entrepreneurial jobs. Seeing the difference you can make in a startup environment, it keeps me motivated. If you don’t work on a Saturday, nothing gets done. I like having that control and influence on a company, it really excites me. A startup is a great way to do that.

Can you tell me something about your industry that the average person wouldn’t know? 

MP: This is a really interesting part of medicine, the minimally invasive procedures can do so much by going through a little hole through the skin. By getting into the vascular system they can go almost anywhere. For example, if someone has a stroke, they can go up to the brain and grab the thrombus and pull it out. They can treat cancer by going directly to the tumour and peppering it with chemotherapy, rather than having to administer it to the whole body. By going this route, they can do amazing things and get extremely targeted. A lot of procedures are starting to go minimally invasive, and being at the forefront of this part of medicine is really exciting.

How has your experience been working with Velocity?

MP: Amazing. We started out in the Velocity Science program, which was a godsend for us because we were originally conducting experiments in our bathroom. Getting that lab space was awesome, and providing us with basic tools, helping us out and buying safety equipment for us… it’s awesome. I actually just referred somebody that’s thinking about doing a science startup to Katie, the Velocity Science Coordinator, because of that. Then we moved into the Velocity Garage where the community has been the best part. When you get into Velocity at first you feel like, ‘it’s so great I’m talking to people that have the same problems that I do.’ Eventually, that starts to get more specific, because now we’re dealing with MedTech startup problems, not just startup problems. Then there’s another group of people you start mentoring with and collaborating with that way. It has been awesome getting to learn from each other.

You pitched and won $10K at the Velocity Fund Finals just five months ago. How has your company benefited from that experience?

MP: It has been a great way to get our name out there, get introduced to more people, and of course the money is really helpful as well. I think in our pitch we talked about what we would do with the money, and it was basically a prototype, and then do an animal study; and while we were down at TMCx that’s exactly what we did.

“That’s a huge milestone for us, getting to prove the concept and showing investors and physicians especially that we can do what we say we’re going to do.” – Michael Phillips, Co-founder of Vena Medical

What are the next steps for Vena Medical, and what do you predict will be the biggest challenge in the future?

MP: Raising money will probably be the hardest thing. We’re doing a little more development right now, but it’s quite passive; my main focus now is raising money. That money will allow us to complete product development so it can be prepared to go into humans. We hope to do that in the next 6-10 months or so. Then we need to do FDA testing, guidance testing, then after that, it’s a waiting game once we’ve submitted. It could be another 6-9 month process. If we had money in the bank today, we should have FDA clearance by late 2019, and that’s when we’ll be able to start piloting this with hospitals and actually helping people.

To learn more about Vena Medical, visit their website.