They’re four geeks, randomly grouped through Stanford University’s Biodesign Innovation Program. One’s getting his Ph.D. in aeronautics, another just graduated from business school. One of them has his own product design firm, and the last one just moved to Boston to start his residency in cosmetic and reconstructive surgery.
As Jon Mathy, the medical student, puts it: Sometimes group work is torture and sometimes, when there’s a serendipitous flow of energy, it’s better than good. So good that a group can get together in a room with big plushy chairs and an elephantine bowl of candy and design a new medical device that can eliminate the need for open-heart bypass surgery.
That’s what VisiVas-as Eshan Alipour, Eric Allison, Mathy and Amita Shukla now call themselves-did. Not only have they tackled what they call the last frontier of interventional cardiology, but they’ve also raised the eyebrows of local venture capitalists and taken home a $25,000 prize after winning Stanford’s annual business plan contest in May.
Although the group is a mix of former and current students, some with real-world business experience and some without, they’ve used all the tricks of a bootstrapped startup to build what could be the start of a new medical device company.
VisiVas grew out of Stanford’s Biodesign Innovations Program. It’s an interdisciplinary program that pulls students from different graduate programs into a series of three courses that explore the needs of doctors and health care workers, then plan a solution. Like the rest of the students, the VisiVas team spent days trailing doctors at work in the hospital. They identified a broad list of needs, exploring the solutions already in use and studying and quantifying the market.
Heart of the Matter
The team settled finally on current treatment options for chronic total occlusion, a life-threatening condition in which the arteries that carry blood away from the heart are almost totally blocked, putting the patient at risk for a heart attack. It’s usually treated with open-heart surgery followed by weeks of recovery. VisiVas developed a device that bypasses the blockage the way water in a river flows around a big boulder. VisiVas’ device calls for an inch-long incision and a daylong recovery.
It’s a simple and elegant solution for a condition that
2 million Americans were treated for in 2000, according to the American Heart Association.
The market need was there, and the market itself was huge. So, like any group of entrepreneurs, the students bootstrapped the project to get it of the ground. They borrowed lab space from a researcher at Stanford, testing a device that could relieve blocked arteries on a pig’s heart donated by a local butcher shop with surgical instruments on loan from a friend.
With proof that the technology worked and could relieve blocked arteries without putting patients through open- heart surgery, Biodesign program professors and business school professors passed VisiVas’ ideas along to the local venture community. Meetings with a handful of Silicon Valley investors helped the team draft and redraft their business plan. Meetings with medical device manufacturers taught the team how to market the device.
VisiVas has filed for patent protection for its technology and is getting legal advice from a Silicon Valley firm as part of its prize for winning the Stanford contest.
Contest judges were impressed that the team members were so passionate about their project that they went to such great lengths to identify a market need and develop a product that could potentially improve the lives of millions of people.
The next step for the VisiVas team is to compete in an international business plan contest in Singapore later this summer. After that, the future is cloudy. Each of the four is committed to pushing VisiVas forward. Each has his own motivations: Shukla is possessed by the entrepreneurial spirit, while Allison and Mathy are devoted to the idea of creating a technology that can be used to treat disease.
The passion is there, but the team faces challenges in transforming a business plan into a viable business. Most difficult will be convincing investors to put money into an unproven team. None has proven he or she can build a company from the ground up. Nevertheless, conversations with investors continue and the group has met with medical device manufacturers interested in the device.
The problem is, students aren’t in school forever. Alipour runs his own product design firm in San Francisco, and Allison is still in school. Mathy is at Harvard beginning a six-year medical residency, while Shukla, who now heads the team, is jumping into VC this fall.
Mathy says he will participate where he can, drawing from the expertise of medical school colleagues and seeking out industry contacts. Even if the team has to put the project on hold for a while, he’s willing to return to it. Alipour and Allison, too, will follow up as VisiVas runs its course. Shukla will use her position as an associate at New Enterprise Associates to research the market further and look for opportunities to move the plan forward.
They don’t have any firm answers, for now. Like any startup, VisiVas is facing an uncertain future. Answers may be easier to find if and when the company secures institutional funding.