Abram Olmstead  | November 7, 2013

Some Guts, Lots of Glory: Health Care Startups Pitch Their Goods in Chicago

It was the slides that got me.

Erik Robinson, co-founder of Chicago startup Sintact Medical Systems was explaining how his product could prevent a fairly common post-surgical complication known as surgical adhesion (I’ll explain what that is in a minute). To illustrate what a surgical adhesion looks like, Robinson had some large pictures projected up behind him and the entire room of 300 people gasped.

The @SintactMed tweet below gives you some idea of what we were looking at.

But sometimes, guts and gore are exactly what you get when you’re listening to health care startups explain their life-saving ideas at a pitch competition. At least, that was the case at the Chicago leg of the Challenge Cup.

The Challenge Cup is a 16-city world tour to identify and reward the most-promising startups taking on the world’s greatest challenges in health care, energy, education and smart cities. The Cup is the brainchild of Washington D.C. incubator, 1776. Chicago’s tech hub, 1871 was the host for the second stop of the tour.

The Challenge Cup kicked off with a pitch competition in D.C., where, yes, there were health care startups competing. But Chicago’s health care startups were different.

Health care was such a strong category, the judges picked three startups to go on to the semifinal round, instead of the normal two. (Photo: Harvey Tillis for 1776)

For one thing, eight health care competitors in the D.C. event focused heavily on data – collecting data, digitizing data, analyzing data, and providing various platforms and apps for storing and sharing the data.

For example, the D.C. winner in the health care category, Dorsata, has created a platform for doctors to navigate diagnoses, making established best practices and cutting-edge research available at the touch of a finger.  “To us, it was figuring out a way to bring published, paper-based content into an interface in which doctors could interact with it in real time and in collaborative groups,” Dorsata co-founder David Fairbrothers recently told 1776.

Only one D.C. health care startup, Rijuven, had a medical device—a “turbo-charged stethoscope,” according to co-founder Raj Kapoor.

But in Chicago, the health care startups had actual devices to show and tell.

Sure, there were a few of the 10 competitors that focused on data, including the Chicago health care winner, Caremerge. This startup, which is based out of 1871, has built a set of web and mobile apps to increase communication and care coordination for senior living communities. Like Dorsata, Caremerge relies on collaboration between doctors, staff members, hospitals and family members.

Then there were the companies like Sintact Medical Systems. Their product – a thin, non-degradable polymer film – prevents something called surgical adhesion. Basically, surgical adhesion occurs after a patient has surgery on an organ. The scar tissue builds up after the surgery, and in many cases, adheres to adjacent tissue or even another nearby organ. Reports indicate surgical adhesion development occurs in 50% to 90% of gynecological, 70% to 90% of abdominal, and 60% to 90% of cardiac related surgeries.

Complications stemming from the formation of adhesions can include restricted cardiac output, risk of fertility, entopic pregnancy, infertility or bowel obstructions. The Sintact film acts as an adhesion barrier separating these surfaces to significantly reduce the likelihood of adhesion formation. You know, so your organs won’t stick together.

Team Sintact was one of three health care teams that moved on to the semifinals and five-minute pitches. (Photo: Harvey Tillis for 1776)

Which brings us to the slides showing just what surgical adhesions look like.

Maybe I should move on and talk about another innovative medical product that was pitched…

Innoblative Designs, has redesigned what’s known as an ablation probe to specifically help breast cancer victims. Reusing current tissue ablation treatments, the expandable, handheld radiofrequency ablation (RFA) probe uses heat and allows surgeons to perform an intra-operative procedure that destroys residual cancer cells in minutes instead of weeks. That means no dangerous ionizing radiation, and dramatically reduced treatment costs, explained co-founders Jason Sandler and Tyler Wanke.

Gillian Henker, a 24-year-old mechanical engineer admits that she’s “not great with blood,” but she doesn’t let a little weak stomach get in the way of developing a reusable, portable device to make blood collection and transfusion in sub-Saharan African women safer.

She and Tiffany Chen are the entrepreneurs behind Design Innovations for Infants and Mothers Everywhere (DIIME), a social venture dedicated to improving infant and maternal health disparities in the developing world through the design and implementation of appropriate, high quality, locally affordable, sustainable health care technologies.

Tiffany Chen (right) and Gillian Henker explain their blood transfusion device to a Chicago Challenge Cup audience member. (Photo: Harvey Tillis for 1776)

Their first product, the Hemafuse, is an autologous blood transfusion device designed for use during ruptured ectopic pregnancy that was developed after working with clinicians at a teaching hospital in Ghana.

In her Challenge Cup pitch, Henker explained autologous blood transfusion, a process that utilizes the concept of blood salvage, in which the patient’s own blood is removed and retransfused into their body.  This is a common practice in many developing nations, particularly in Africa, where there are severe shortages of donated blood available for transfusion.

However, the current method of autologous transfusion used in Ghana is very inefficient and unsafe. Without going into too much detail, I will tell you that a soup ladle is involved.

Henker and Chen, who drove five hours from Michigan to participate in the Chicago Challenge Cup, showed me a 3-D printed prototype of the Hemafuse. Basically, it looks like a really big, milky white syringe with a removable, replaceable filter, but it is certainly much safer and more efficient than using a soup ladle. It could be an important tool in Ghana where there are more than 20,000 women suffer from ruptured entopic pregnancies a year.

Henker and Chen have raised $80,000 in capital over the last two years and are looking to move to the next stage of production, but it’s been slow going. “In regulated industries, it’s hard to do the startup model. It takes a lot of initial capital to get a regulated device made,” Henker said.

One of the benefits to participating in the Challenge Cup is that 1776 invites investors in each city to the event, so even if a startup doesn’t win, they get great exposure and the opportunity to meet with executives, investors and entrepreneurs.

And, of course, other organizations are providing those connections in Chicago as well. “There’s a lot of support for startups thinking outside the box. You’ve got a very supportive mayor. You’ve got an incredibly supportive business community. My organization, which loves this kind of stuff,” said Challenge Cup judge and Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce President Theresa Mintle. “And you’ve got 1871, which is unique in the Midwest, obviously. We get people who come over here from all over the Midwest to experience and learn about it, and actually stay so they can find the vc [venture capital], find other partners, and actually find other businesses that need what they’ve got to solve their problems.”

Find out more about the Challenge Cup, including upcoming cities and check FreeEnterprise.com/challengecup for updates and stories throughout the competition. And follow the competition on Twitter and Instagram by searching #ChallengeCup