Gates Ventures, Mayo Clinic Back Tiny Robot Created By $400M Apple Face ID Inventors To Treat Brain Disease


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By Matthew Kalman

Michael Shpigelmacher, Founder and CEO of Bionaut Labs, with the company’s micro-robot designed to swim through the central nervous system into the brain to treat disease now on trial in the U.S.

PrimeSense, the previous company founded by Michael Shpigelmacher, Aviad Maizels and Alex Shpunt, was acquired in 2013 by Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) for around $400 million. It was a world leader in 3D sensors that helped power the Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) Kinect for Xbox 360 and provided the technology behind Apple’s Face ID.

Bionaut Labs, the medical startup founded by the trio, is on a very different journey – into the deepest recesses of the human brain.

But the company is already making waves. This month, Bill Gates’ Gates Ventures joined its early funders, extending investment to $70 million from a blue-chip roster including the Mayo Clinic, Khosla Ventures, Upfront Ventures and OurCrowd, Fortune magazine reported.

The company’s Bionaut, a tiny micro-robot smaller than a grain of rice, is guided through a patient’s central nervous system into a targeted spot in the brain where it can perform minor surgery, deliver therapeutic drugs or return with tissue for a biopsy.

Not since Raquel Welch was shrunk and inserted into a patient’s bloodstream in the 1966 movie “Fantastic Voyage” have doctors come so close to targeting life-saving medication so precisely to reach the inaccessible recesses of the human body.

The company is testing its technology at a Mayo Clinic facility and is poised to begin clinical trials with five top-tier U.S. medical centers as it applies for FDA approval.

Investors can still join the Bionaut Labs funding round via the OurCrowd investment platform.

Shpigelmacher, CEO of Bionaut Labs, says he realized that treatments for disease occurring at a specific point in the body – especially the brain – were not being accurately targeted.

He likens the effect of existing treatments to “carpet bombing a patient’s body with drugs,” creating “widespread undesired side effects or damage to surrounding tissue and organs.”

“There we were, flooding the whole body. It was like having one dirty dish in the sink and bringing out a fire hose that floods the whole house just to wash that single dish,” he says.

The Bionaut, guided by a physician using a powerful magnet, can release a payload of targeted therapy directly into a tumor or any other localized target – even deep inside the brain – and head for home.

“Surgeries to get to the brain tend to be relatively aggressive and fairly in depth and carry a lot of risks associated with them and a lot of recovery time,” says Dr Bill Loudon, VP of Neuroscience at Bionaut Labs. The blood-brain barrier creates “very significant problems to try to get drugs to where we want it to go. On the surgical side it’s hard to get into the brain and on the drug side it’s hard to get into the tissues.”

“The Bionaut has specific advantages that circumvent these problems. It truly represents a whole new level,” Dr Loudon says.

The company has developed several micro-robot prototypes, each designed for a different purpose. There is a capsule-shaped Bionaut designed to move through fluid, a corkscrew-shaped Bionaut designed to burrow through tissue and a sharp-pointed Bionaut that can perform microsurgery by slicing through the kind of cyst in the brain that causes hydrocephalus, or Dandy-Walker Syndrome.

A Bionaut can carry a therapeutic payload and deliver it directly to the targeted area, which avoids flooding the entire central nervous system. Instead of drilling through several centimeters of brain tissue, the Bionaut can be guided through internal fluids to within millimeters of its target.

“We minimize tissue penetration, doing it only for the safest and shortest distance possible. It opens a completely new way of treating brain diseases,” Shpigelmacher says.

Each tiny Bionaut contains a powerful magnet that allows it to be remotely controlled from outside the body. The patient has an MRI or CT scan, which the physician uses to plan the safest route to the affected area and then loads the route onto a computer. The patient is sedated and the Bionaut is injected into the central nervous system at the entry point worked out in advance. Then, the computer takes over, guiding the probe to its destination while causing the least possible damage to surrounding tissue as the physician monitors its progress via X-ray.

$130 Billion Market

“The market for brain and CNS therapeutics is massive – over $130 billion today and estimated to grow to over $200 billion. Most of it is drugs,” Shpigelmacher says.

Pharma giants are targeting a wide range of neuro-degenerative conditions including Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, glioblastoma and many more, but they all face the challenge of getting the drugs to the point where they are needed inside the brain.

“The problem is, even if you have the best drug how are you going to get it to the target?” Shpigelmacher says. “This is where Bionaut steps in. Bionaut does not aim to replace these drugs or replace these payloads. It aims to provide a way for the drug manufacturer to get their payload to the target. So even if we just focus on neuro-degeneration, brain cancer and epilepsy – that alone is over a $70 billion market today.”

“We’re already in discussions with the FDA to take this to the clinic next year. The idea is that by the end of 2024 we will have early human data for the device, and in 2025 we will license it out for broader neurological indications,” Shpigelmacher says.

The company hopes to emulate the success of other companies specializing in robotic surgery and the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases. Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ: ISRG), a leader in surgical robotics, is worth more than $100 billion. Halozyme (NASDAQ: HALO), which partners with major pharma companies to reformulate drugs for precision use, earns millions of dollars each year and is valued at almost $5 billion.

“When we started this research, many of the physicians we spoke to, specialists in cardiology, gastroenterology, ophthalmology and more, simply asked, ‘When can we sign up?’” Shpigelmacher says.

For more information about joining Bionaut Labs’ extension round via the OurCrowd platform, click HERE.

Featured photo courtesy of Bionaut Labs.

OurCrowd was started in 2013, driven by the idea that the business of building startups grows bigger and better when the global ‘crowd’ gains access to VC-level investment opportunities.Today, OurCrowd is a global venture and alternative investing platform that empowers institutions and individuals to invest and engage in emerging companies. OurCrowd vets and selects companies, invests its capital, and provides its global network with unparalleled access to co-invest and contribute connections, talent and deal flow. OurCrowd builds value for its portfolio companies throughout their lifecycles, providing mentorship, recruiting industry advisors, navigating follow-on rounds and creating growth opportunities through its network of multinational partnerships.

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