Entrepreneur Eric Sirois, PhD, is CEO of Dura Biotech, a startup company that has developed an innovative heart valve replacement. Sirois took time this summer to give Innovation Destination: Hartford a tour of the lab and explain how participating in the University of Connecticut Technology Innovation Program (TIP) helped shaped the foundation for his company.
IDH: Give us a little background.
SIROIS: When I joined the military I was given an aptitude test and I tested off the charts with mechanical engineering. I didn’t think of myself as a mechanical person. But the test was right. Once I started to look at systems, I realized it just comes to me. I understand how things move and flow and how they need to go together.
After the Navy, when I was looking to transition to a new career, I really wanted to apply this newfound talent to something that I thought was going to be fun and interesting—I wanted to be challenged creatively and solve problems.
I loved looking at systems and how we learn reactor plant systems and fluid systems. So I thought: What if I treated the body like that and learned about it? I started to do some homework and realized that that’s a real thing: it’s called biomedical engineering.
IDH: How did you end up in Connecticut?
SIROIS: I was stationed in Connecticut and I met my wife here, so there was a good chance I was staying. It turned out that the University of Connecticut has one of the world’s best biomedical engineering programs. I earned my Bachelor’s degree in about three years.
Along the way I met Dr. Wei Sun, a former associate professor at UConn, who does research in heart valves. He asked me to do some hands-on building of systems to test the heart valves. I designed some systems for him and then he convinced me to leave my part-time job. I became basically a full-time researcher. That was when everything changed for me. I dedicated 100% of my mental effort to learning heart valves, the heart and how it all works.
IDH: You mentioned you always wanted to do something challenging. Have you always had an entrepreneurial drive?
IROIS: I always wanted that as the end. I never thought it could happen this fast. I didn’t think I would come right out of school with a company and then fast forward a couple years later have 13 employees and millions of dollars of money that we’ve taken in, but it’s the way that it’s worked out. I was trying to position myself with a 10- to 20-year plan.
IDH: So things kind of sped up.
SIROIS: Exactly. Now that I’m in this vibrant entrepreneurial community in Connecticut, one of the things I see is that they really try to push transitioning high technology out of the universities. They found that the best vehicle for that is using grad students or post doctorates. It’s a very big risk for tenured faculty to leave their positions, whereas you can build a company around a senior graduate student or younger post doctorate.
IDH: In what ways did the resources throughout Connecticut and at UConn help you start the business?
SIROIS: The two big pieces the company needed from the beginning were advice and money. Connecticut has been an excellent place to do business for both of those things.
In terms of advice, when I first got into this we filed our provisional patent of our heart valve design through UConn. The inventors were Dr. Sun; Thuy Pham, who is now our CTO; another researcher who has gone to Europe work on other things and me. We were very academic at that time, we weren’t thinking about transitioning into a company.
Through that filing, we met Hadi Bozorgmanesh, who is a professor of practice at UConn. Hadi is quasi-retired from the industry as a former CEO and has the foundational belief that you can train technical people with management and entrepreneurial skills. Hadi asked me to take his class as a scientist and learn how to be an entrepreneur and how to build a commercialization strategy around the technology.
I took his class and was introduced to many key mentors, including, Nerac President and CEO Kevin Bouley and Mary Anne Rooke, who is Executive Director at Crossroads Venture Group (CVG) and founder and principal at her own management consulting firm. Mary Ann used to run the TIP at UConn and is very involved in the investment community.
I would present my idea of a durable heart valve to these mentors and explain how we’d commercialize it and our operational plan. They would come at it from all different perspectives. Kevin has a financial background and he runs a company himself as an entrepreneur and executive. Mary Ann has an investor’s perspective. We got legal advice and marketing advice. People from all different professional areas would challenge some of our assumptions. I came away from that with some really great advice but also a great network of people I could call later on. I really built on that network to start to develop the company.
We founded the company in 2012, after I took the class with Hadi. We named it Dura Biotech—the “dura” is for durable. The concept that we had was that we could make a minimally invasive valve that lasted as long as a surgical valve.
Through Hadi’s class we won a $10,000 Innovation Pathfinder award from the University of Connecticut School of Engineering. Through our University connections we were introduced to Connecticut Innovations. CTNext and Connecticut Innovations have been some of our biggest supporters. They provided us with a $10,000 Entrepreneur Innovation Award, a $50,000 award that CTNext funded indirectly through the Third Bridge award from the University of Connecticut School of Engineering, and then finally helped us to receive a $500,000 investment from the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund.
IDH: How are you using the award money?
SIROIS: A lot of it goes outside. We use it for development of our delivery system and for the actual implantations of the valves where we are partnering with Hartford Healthcare to do our animal studies.
IDH: Let’s talk about the heart valve you’re designing. How does it work?
SIROIS: Our Dura LowPro Valve is a replacement heart valve that you can have without surgery. They call these transcatheter aortic valves. The concept is that you can get this valve inserted through a catheter in your leg and then deployed without any surgery at all, so it’s less invasive and it’s safer.
Our device is smaller than any other heart valve in the world, which allows more people to get it through their leg. So no matter how small the patient’s leg is they can still get that safer, preferred access route through the leg.
IDH: Did you experience any challenges when you were designing the heart valve?
The whole concept of transcatheter valves came as a sympathetic way to treat those patients who couldn’t use traditional heart valves. Transcatheter valve replacement became so successful that many people within the industry started to wonder if we could make minimally invasive valves for everyone.
Logistically, to be able to make a minimally invasive valve crimp down small enough to fit into a patient’s leg they couldn’t use as much material as is used in a surgical valve. So while surgical valves have a long history of lasting about 15 to 20 years, the minimally invasive valves last only 5 to 7 years, which was at least an estimate at that time because no one really knew.
We wondered if we could we make a minimally invasive valve that lasted just as long as a surgical valve. Our invention that we filed at UConn was a way to make a leaflet more durable. We won our early funding based on that concept.
In 2013, we attended the international Transcatheter Cardiovascular Therapeutics (TCT) conference in San Francisco, CA to show off our durable valve technology. Before we even got to the conference, our poster was voted in the top 50 among presentations, which was very exciting. Once we were there, the poster was voted within the top eight and it was selected to be live broadcast to the entire conference—not just to the attendees, but in a webcast. It was amazing and it gave us a lot of exposure.
At the conference, we interacted with more and more potential customers and were able to ask them if our concept of a durable valve was something they would use. At the time, the feedback we got was that the world was not interested in a durable minimally invasive valve. But one of the stories we heard over and over again was that not all patients receiving the minimally invasive valves were getting them the same way. Many patients received it through the leg, but many other patients received it through a direct insertion to the heart through a procedure called a transapical insertion. There’s a lot of data that says the one-year mortality (the rate of death) with those alternate access routes can be as high as three times what it is through the leg.
So the question was: Could we use the same technology to make our device smaller? I still remember coming back on the red-eye flight from San Francisco and doing the math to figure out if we could actually make our device smaller. By the time we landed I was confident we could make it smaller, the question was, how much smaller? It was that question that we really posed as the centerpiece of a pitch to CTNext. That was when they gave us $10,000 to be able to buy the tools we needed to prove how small we could make the valve.
IDH: So you were able to pivot.
SIROIS: With these big medical device companies you go to these conferences to really showcase what you have and make that the steppingstone toward a multi-million dollar investment. We had won all these awards, so we really thought we were on the path to a big investment. At the conference, we really got brought back down to Earth by how not ready the world was for our idea.
IDH: But you realized that you still had something.
SIROIS: It was a momentary dip, I guess. But then we were reenergized. That was around Halloween 2013 and by January 2014 we had the first prototype.
Everyone says you need to talk to the customers, you need to pivot, you need to do all these things. Looking back, when we aligned the company’s technology with the needs of the customer, that’s when everything took off, all the money started to come and the message became much more clear: We make a small heart valve because it’s safer and we’ll use that to save lives.
IDH: Where do you think you see things going in the next few years?
SIROIS: We’ll start our large animal implants in the next month or so at Hartford Healthcare and then we’re already planning our first human implant. That will be the first clinical trial, which will begin next year.
There’s a long list of testing that you do to ensure that the device is safe. We’ve done a lot of bench testing. We’ve done durability tests, we’ve proven that the valve opens and closes for a long period of time. We’ve done left heart simulator testing so we are testing that the valve opens and closes properly and it doesn’t have leakages or abnormal behavior. We’ve done packaging testing. We’ll be doing biocompatibility testing soon to show that the valve doesn’t have any adverse reaction with the blood.
We’re excited to be able to help patients—it’s what we got into this for in the beginning. Now we’re within a year of being able to actually do that.
IDH: You’ve spent some time helping startups and inspiring undergrads to become entrepreneurs.
SIROIS: I’ve had so much help along the way. I was surprised to find how many people were willing to give time and energy to just help me. People are so generous with helping us get off the ground and realizing that companies at the early stages have so little resources. Even when they do have resources, they can do much better to allocate them to the things that move the company. One of the things that I heard over and over again is: When it’s your turn, you give back too.
We’re very lucky in Connecticut to have the kind of entrepreneurial community we have. I’ve been just trying to do my part.
UConn has a first-year program called Innovation House, which is a group of freshmen who have the entrepreneurial spirit. They think at one point in their lives they would like to start or run a company. The students are from all different majors, there are artists, writers, scientists and engineers. They are all living in the same place and staying up late and eating pizza and throwing ideas out about what types of business ideas might work. At the same time, they receive training similar to how Hadi trained me, but I would say on a smaller scale. It’s only one hour a week. They get a sampling of what it takes to run a company, what kinds of things you need to think about, how do you do an elevator pitch, those kinds of things. I’ve worked with Innovation House for the last two years and it’s been very rewarding.
I keep busy. I’m always looking for things like that to do. I think the giveback is important, but also continuing to grow and network. I’ve seen a lot of the later graduates from Hadi’s class, I’ve had sit-down meetings with a couple of them where we talk about what to do next. I’ve been one of the people who comes back and they pitch to me.
IDH: It must be gratifying that you’ve become a reliable source for that. It’s good that entrepreneurs can lean on others to help them succeed.
SIROIS: I think that that is one of the best retentions tools in Connecticut, because the network is so important. It’s a harder thing to transplant. When Dura Biotech began receiving federal grants, we started getting phone calls from other states asking us to come and set up, but we couldn’t leave the network we have here in Connecticut. That’s actually our most valuable resource.
IDH: Any advice for entrepreneurs or startups?
SIROIS: My advice is always to do. People who talk about planning and strategy, and I think there’s a place for all of that. You need to have a business plan and you need to have a strategy, but at some point you just have to get your hands dirty, do some work, build a prototype and get in front of customers.
We really wouldn’t be where we are if we hadn’t built our technology, which turned out to be in the wrong direction, basically. But we needed to take it to a level where we could get feedback from customers, learn that we were doing it wrong, and then go in the right direction.
You can plan and plan and plan but you need to do. The faster you can do and the cheaper you can do, the better off you’ll be in the end.