Ave Verum: Medical device spin out maps the start-up path to success
The founders of campus company ProVerum Medical speak to Dáire O’Driscoll ahead of their expansion to the St. James’s Campus
“This might be the last photo of just the three of us,” says Conor Harkin, co-founder and Chief Executive of ProVerum Medical. He leans against a desk in the ProVerum offices in Dublin City Centre, not far from the Biomedical Sciences Institute (TBSI). He’s joined by Michael Burke, a Trinity graduate and the medtech start-up’s research and development engineer, as well as Ríona Ní Ghriallais, ProVerum’s chief technology officer (CTO). The trio are not the typical start-up founders, which is, in essence, reflective of ProVerum itself.
Burke, Ní Ghriallais and Harkin all travelled different paths to arrive at ProVerum. Harkin graduated from Trinity in 2000 and went on to work as a surgeon in the United Kingdom and Ireland before swapping scrubs for suits and taking up a job in investment banking. “Goldman Sachs hired me, a helicopter pilot and a chemist, so someone in HR had a wacky policy.” Ultimately, though, he wanted to return to Ireland and apply the skills he had learned in the operating theatre and at the European Investment Fund.
“When you’re viewing your first job, don’t look at the salary. Use it as a springboard to get you to the career or company you want to work for”
Ní Ghriallais followed a more conventional route, perhaps, but nonetheless different to her colleagues. Her decision to study biomedical engineering at National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) came as a natural progression from her interests. “I stuck with subjects I liked, which at the time were maths and physics. I could have gone down the science route but I felt that wasn’t very applied.” By her own admission, she wasn’t entirely sure of what lay at the end of the path. Trying to balance research with industry led Ní Ghriallais to a PhD straight after her undergraduate. Emerging with a doctorate in 2012, she began working with another medtech start-up specialising in stents. After three years and a career break she found herself linking up with Harkin and Burke at ProVerum.
Burke offers sage advice for graduates. Graduating in 2014, he worked first at Trinity as a researcher for two years. “When you’re viewing your first job, don’t look at the salary. Use it as a springboard to get you to the career or company you want to work for.” The decision to forego a higher salary in industry paid dividend. While Burke was working on a heart valve, Harkin was working in the same lab. “I was lucky in a way,” he says,“I was doing this for the experience. I’ve learnt so much, even about investing and finance.”
On returning to Ireland in 2013, Harkin got involved with a programme called BioInnovate. The year long programme, set up by Enterprise Ireland, sees clinicians, engineers and business people come together with the view of creating medtech start ups. “The idea is to go into a hospital and look for problems. We were wandering around the hospital with a notepad, talking to patients and clinicians and seeing what particular area might need some improvement. It’s good science. It’s good business”.
The problem that brought the trio together is Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH). “A lot of guys, as they get older, the prostate gland starts growing from puberty,” explains Harkin. “For most men it’s fine but for a lot men, it actually overgrows and surrounds the urethra and blocks it off.” The condition affects over half of all men over fifty years old. “It’s not life threatening but really is bloody awful. It can cause insomnia, you’re up four or five times per night.”
“The idea is to go into a hospital and look for problems. We were wandering around the hospital with a notepad, talking to patients and clinicians and seeing what particular area might need some improvement. It’s good science. It’s good business”
While some men will take medication for BPH, it is not always effective and can come with side-effects such as dizzy spells. The current “gold standard” alternative, as Harkin describes it, is a transurethral resection (TUR). “It’s a pretty horrible operation. It’s actually going in with a hot loop and physically coring out a section of the gland. It’s almost like coring out an apple core.”
Burke rummages around the cabinet in the office and pulls out a small plastic bag. Inside it is the device that the team have spent the best part of 30 minutes explaining.“That’s it?!” Whether it’s incredulity or ignorance, the device is as unassuming as the team that developed it. “As simple as that,” says Harkin. He believes that sometimes engineers and researchers over complicate things. For a device that took thousands of man-hours to develop, the design is remarkably simple.
Harkins remark that the photo taken might be the final one of the original team is not flippant. By 2020, they hope to have the device on the market and expand their workforce by a factor of four. “Fundamentally we’ll be on the market, we’ll have CE (Conformité Européene) approval. We’ll have shown in a large number of patients that this is safe and effective. Helping lots of patients means lots of good revenue, employing people and saving the healthcare system a lot of money. There will be jobs for young graduates in Dublin, not just Trinity graduates.”a
The innovation is one truly founded in the university. “All the prototyping was done between Professor Bruce Murphy’s lab in the Trinity Centre for Bioengineering and the mechanical engineering workshop in the Parsons Building,” he explains. This all took place between June 2015 and March the following year. “It’s only recently that we’ve begun to outsource the development, but everything up to that point was done in-house, in Trinity.” Even from a financial expertise point of view, Trinity had a hand in the success. “The TTO (Technology Transfer Office) gave us the commercial advice we needed,” says Harkin.
“Helping lots of patients means lots of good revenue, employing people and saving the healthcare system a lot of money. There will be jobs for young graduates in Dublin”
The cost-effectiveness of ProVerum’s invention is something that Harkin believes makes it very attractive to healthcare providers such as the HSE and Medicare in the United States. “It will be a day case. Instead of spending two days or three days in a hospital, a patient will come in under local anesthetic, so they’ll be out that day.”
“We were all a bit nervous going into the trials. By the end we knew we were onto something,” says Burke. “We knew the rationale made sense and we had very good clinical advisors,” adds Harkin. The future holds expansion for ProVerum. The excitement is a driving factor too for Ní Ghriallais. “The progression of this project is what drives me on. If you look at what we achieved this time last year. We’re now at a stage where we’re set up with a manufacturer and they’re looking at tools to make our device, so we can use it in a human for the first time. Getting to that stage is exciting.”
ProVerum is a marriage of opportunity and opportunism on a steep learning curve. Harkin gives an example: “There was one day we were doing cadaver trials in the morning, meeting an intellectual property lawyer in the afternoon and investors in the evening.”
What sets the company apart is not the technological or scientific breakthrough, it is the people involved. From a surgeon, turned investment banker, turned medtech entrepreneur, to a CTO from Connemara who retains the passion for innovation, to a graduate still working in one of his first jobs, ProVerum is a unique partnership.