Visit to gather information on challenges startups face from government support
When the Center for MedTech Excellence launched in the fall of 2022, it sought to tackle the challenges that early-stage medical device and biotech companies face in successfully getting to market.
Since then, the MedTech Center, a program of Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, has worked with and evaluated 208 companies. It has 66 active startups in its portfolio and helped them to get $9.5 million in venture capital funding, and $3.5 million in non-dilutive grants from the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer federal programs. Those portfolio companies have created a total of 174 jobs.
“We’re bringing the best of the resources together to make sure that we’re creating an innovative ecosystem that supports our scientists,” MedTech Center Director Nakia Melecio said at a Jan. 9 meeting with Small Business Administration (SBA) Deputy Administrator Dilawar Syed.
Syed and officials from the SBA were in Atlanta as part of a multi-city tour to hear from entrepreneurs, their challenges, and what the agency could do better to help them succeed.
“There is so much focus on driving innovation in the present administration,” Syed said during his visit at Georgia Tech. “This program is a successful program. We want to make sure it becomes relevant for the next generation of entrepreneurs, especially in communities of color, especially in regions like Atlanta that often have not been at the forefront of driving innovation.”
SBA officials met with several MedTech Center portfolio companies and heard what their main challenges were, chief among them being timing for grants and what’s considered too early in a startup’s lifecycle when it comes to seeking funds from federal agencies.
Nikhil L. Shah, CEO and co-founder of Nephrodite, shared some of the pain points his company had after getting initial funding for its fully implantable continuous dialysis device for patients with end-stage renal disease.
Even though the company had received a $1.8 million grant from a German government agency, it faced several hurdles with U.S. federal funding agencies.
“We applied for the NSF [National Science Foundation] at first and we had that conundrum where they said, ‘you know, this is really early technology. It’s too early,’” he said. “We applied to NIH [National Institutes of Health], but they said, ‘you haven’t done animal studies. We really need animal studies.’ I said, well, I need money to do all that.”
It was similar to the experience of Mason Chilmonczyk, CEO and co-founder of Andson Biotech, a company focused on accelerating the discovery, development, and manufacturing of advanced cell-based therapies.
He and his team sought out program officers with the agency to get guidance before pitching or applying for funds. But he said they were told they were not far enough along in product development, or they were too advanced in the company’s lifecycle.
“You’re too early, this tool is too experimental, or you have too much traction,” he said. “It’s like, it’s too developed almost.”
He and other founders who met with SBA officials welcome support from federal agencies and appreciate the rigorous evaluations process for medical device and life science companies. But the founders who spoke said it would be helpful to know exactly what federal agencies want and more specifics on why a given grant application was rejected.
“I only get a couple pages of feedback…one of the things we need is to just have better education, so you choose to invest your time or not.”
It’s a message that Syed said he would take back to Washington.
“It just strikes me every time we hear from founders how much more work we have to do to drive awareness,” he said, noting it must be an interagency effort. “It’s the entire federal government and SBA’s job is to coordinate that for everyone — better coordination, better communication, make sure people understand whether they’re ready to apply for this or not.”