Entrepreneurs John Slump and Jared Garfield have gotten it right. They founded their company for the right reasons and are holding fast to those principles. Many medical device companies have technologies that come out of the lab and go in search of a problem. Not these two. They identified a large clinical need and built their company to solve it. As the company evolved through a tough economy, changing investor environment, and development challenges, they maintained the focus of their efforts. Corvida Medical is dedicated to enabling the safer, more efficient, and user-friendly preparation, delivery, and disposal of hazardous pharmaceuticals. As John and Jared told me, “We are passionately committed to making cancer care safe for healthcare workers”.
Like many entrepreneurial stories, this one starts out with a personal ordeal and the persistence to do something about it. John’s sister who lives in Denver was diagnosed with melanoma, and he saw first- hand how dangerous the administering of chemotherapy drugs was to hospital staff. And like many entrepreneurs, John and Jared were not encouraged to create the company necessary to address this clinical need. They wrote their first business plan as students at the University of Iowa, receiving a B+ and “not viable”. Undaunted, they pressed on with business plan competitions from around Iowa and then nationally. John told me, “The one thing you have to understand about us is that the best way to get us to do something is to tell us we can’t do it”. They researched the clinical need further, they talked to clinicians and hospital staff, they dug into the market opportunity, and they refined their business plan, which culminated in several awards totaling $100,000.
Here is where they realized they might have something. But it’s a huge step from there to start a company. Around that time, they held a focus group at a clinical pharmacology conference with the leading cancer treatment clinicians in attendance. The feedback was so positive and so unequivocal they took the plunge. They knew if they got the clinical need right, then the solution would follow. To get started, they secured funding from friends and family, the state of Iowa, and angel investors. That is no small accomplishment for two students with no experience but what is really unique is that they submitted a grant to the National Cancer Institute (NCI, http://www.cancer.gov/) under the SBIR program (http://sbir.cancer.gov/funding/omnibus) only about a year after starting the company. NCI doesn’t care about what the business opportunity is, it cares about solving real clinical problems and sees small business as a way to develop innovative solutions to those problems. They contracted an experienced grant writer, a pharmacologist to be their Principal Investigator, and built a scientific advisory board to assist them in preparing the application, but like most start-ups the majority of the work fell on them. “One of the most pivot events for us was being awarded the NCI grant. It validated the clinical need, and as the title of the grant indicates, it validated we had an innovative device to improve the safe administration of chemotherapy”. Two years later, Corvida Medical was awarded the Phase 2 grant.
With the Phase 1 grant and subsequent additional Series A funding, the two entrepreneurs built a team, further developed the device, and engaged many of the leading cancer centers in the US to test their device. Since then they have brought onboard Kent Smith in 2012, a very experienced medical device executive as President & CEO, they have been granted 5 patents, and they are working on their FDA 510k submittal. But they continue to focus their efforts on getting the device optimized in the clinic. Asked what they are looking forward to in the near future, they said looking forward to the Phase 3 bridge award to complete their clinical studies. Like I said, they got it right, and it looks like they continue to get it right.
Bob Luzzi is an experienced medical device R&D executive and entrepreneur. He currently is working on his own early stage venture, and consults for medical device companies in new product and intellectual property development.