In their home base at the Pennovation Center, the duo behind biotechnology start-up Avisi Technologies, Penn grads Rui Jing Jiang and Brandon Kao, make working to bring to market a vision-sparing device look like play.
“I think sometimes people look at us running around here and say, ‘Who are these young people just having fun?’” says Jiang, a May graduate of the Wharton School at Penn.
That impression, however, belies the cutting-edge science, business savvy, and dedicated work that the pair have put in over the last two years—and their meaningful progress. Since dedicating themselves full-time to Avisi this past July, Jiang and Kao, winners of the 2018 Penn President’s Innovation Prize, have sailed past key milestones and are on the cusp of beginning a proof-of-concept study to test their device, VisiPlate.
An ocular implant with unique nanoscale properties, VisiPlate is designed to remove excess fluid from inside the eye, thereby relieving the high pressures that damage the optic nerve and cause open angle glaucoma, a major cause of blindness worldwide.
“Our findings from our bench experiments are promising so far,” says Kao, who graduated in May from the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “A big question we had was whether or not the material would be robust enough to be inserted in the eye, and we’ve seen that it can be implanted in a cadaver eye and is still mechanically sound.”
The President’s Innovation Prize (PIP), founded by President Amy Gutmann in 2016, encourages Penn students to design and undertake innovative, commercial ventures that make a positive difference in the world. Winners receive as much as $100,000 to further develop their innovation as well as a $50,000 living stipend each.
As PIP awardees, Jiang and Kao, now CEO and CTO, respectively, of Avisi, have been allotted a dedicated working space at the Pennovation Center, as well as mentorship from the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI). Taking their involvement at the Pennovation Center one step further, the team is renting shared space in a second-floor laboratory where Kao works to further build, refine, and test prototype devices.
As budding health care entrepreneurs, the VisiPlate team has been garnering attention from both inside and outside Penn. Recently, they were accepted into the inaugural cohort of resident companies at Johnson & Johnson’s JPOD @ Philadelphia, a networking hub unveiled earlier this month at the Pennovation Center. The arrangement affords Avisi and fellow startups access to mentorship and networking on top of the significant support they already receive from PCI and other project advisors.
“That’s given us a great community to tap into,” Jiang says. “We’ve been able to meet other health care entrepreneurs and will likely benefit from their support and experience on the commercialization and regulatory fronts as we move forward.”
Investors are likewise taking notice of the company’s momentum. Jiang’s presentation at the Mid-Atlantic Bioangels 1st Pitch Life Science contest won first place. The team will travel to New York in December to compete against other winners from New York and Philadelphia. The Avisi team has also won FabNet seed grants from Ben Franklin Technology Partners.
You couldn’t blame Jiang and Kao for getting used to such recognition. A tall set of shelves in their garage space serves as a trophy case of sorts, housing their PIP honor, two Wharton Startup Challenge awards, and a few others they’ve racked up since formulating the idea for VisiPlate. In 2017, for example, they won the Y-Prize, together with company co-founder and fellow PIP winner Adarsh Battu, a Wharton graduate who now works for private equity firm Silver Lake.
During the Y-Prize contest, the team found themselves most inspired by nanoscale-thin sheets developed in the lab of Igor Bargatin, the Class of 1965 Term Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. The 100-nanometer-thin sheets—thousands of times thinner than aluminum foil—have a corrugated hexagonal structure that allows them to maintain their shape under physical stress, and are the only films of this thickness that can be manually handled.
Each student’s unique perspective, such as Jiang’s experience working in pharmaceutical companies, Kao’s knowledge of materials science engineering, and Battu’s understanding of need-finding through past startup experience, allowed them to take a very research-focused view to leverage this novel nanotechnology in the human body.
“We asked ourselves where the smallest implants in the body are right now,” Jiang says. “And the answer was the eye and the ear. Vision is such a huge component of quality of life and it’s something that we wanted to help improve. We discovered that the two leading causes of blindness in the world are cataracts and glaucoma, but within cataracts there are already a lot of really amazing solutions. We thought we could have a bigger impact by treating glaucoma.”
With VisiPlate, they hope to carve out a new category in the market. Their technology is thousands of times thinner than existing last-line-of-defense implants for glaucoma. Because of its scale, it can be placed just under the surface in the front of the eye, where it diverts excess ocular fluid into a layer of tissue where it can be absorbed. This, they say, will allow for shorter operations and better patient experiences.
“The team’s goal is to cure blindness that currently is incurable in glaucoma,” says their project adviser Jeffrey Babin, an associate professor of practice in engineering and the associate director of the engineering entrepreneurship program. Babin is also the academic director of the Management & Technology Summer Institute, where he first taught Kao and Jiang when they attended as high school students in 2013.
“I think what enabled them to win is that they have been committed to this regardless of prizes and competitions,” Babin says. “They really wanted to do this. The amount of work that they have done, and the complexity of the issues that they’ve navigated, is truly exceptional. They’re both talented entrepreneurs and really nice people. If you take intellect, talent, drive, ambition, and just being a delight to work with, it’s a tough combination to beat.”
Jiang and Kao have recruited some part-time help to their team, and a slew of mentors. In addition to student assistants with business development and bioengineering backgrounds, they have brought on an MBA fellow through the Wharton Venture Initiation Program Accelerator.
They’ve also reaped guidance and mentorship from Penn ophthalmologists, including Eydie Miller-Ellis and Richard Stone, the William C. Frayer Professor in Ophthalmology. Both are professors of clinical ophthalmology in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. The PIP winners have also been helped by engineers such as Sam Nicaise, a postdoctoral researcher in the Bargatin laboratory in Penn Engineering, Bargatin himself, and Nicholas Benetatos, a Penn alumnus who is familiar with the medical device industry and served as Kao’s senior design competition judge.
This larger team of advisers meets with Jiang and Kao monthly in the Pennovation Center’s conference spaces, going over the company’s strategy and navigating challenges as they come up. For their next steps, proof of concept studies in rabbit models, Jiang and Kao will collaborate with researchers at Colorado State University to ensure the device works safely and as intended. They’re also putting together a grant application to earn support from the National Science Foundation as part of their America’s Seed Fund program.
Jiang and Kao remain laser-focused on the milestones they want to hit, culminating in FDA approval in 2021 and taking VisiPlate to market by 2022. For now, however, they’re also enjoying the experience of being immersed in the innovation ecosystem at Penn, surrounded by the resources they need to make a difference.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Kao says. “We spend a lot of time laying out our next goals and milestones. We strive to keep ourselves accountable for that.”
“Every day is a tremendous learning opportunity,” Jiang adds. “We’re faced with making critical and strategic decisions—that’s something rare for people our age. I love it and I look forward to the impact we will create.”
Homepage photo: Winners of the 2018 President’s Innovation Prize, Penn alums Brandon Kao, Rui Jing Jiang, and Adarsh Battu launched their startup company, Avisi Technologies, at the Pennovation Center. Inspired by a novel nanomaterial, they envisioned a last-line-of-defense ocular implant to treat glaucoma. Avisi is on track to bring the device, VisiPlate, to market by 2022.