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VCU commercialization efforts at work for health care innovators and faculty startups

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October 18-20, 2023 / Tucson, AZ
The annual summit for research institution gap fund and accelerator programs, including proof of concept programs, startup accelerators, and university venture funds

The Story

A VCU School of Pharmacy researcher’s augmented reality technology is nearing the marketplace, backed by Virginia Commonwealth University’s network of services that can guide a faculty member’s idea into development, gain partners and investors for the innovation and eventually find licensure.

The Health Innovation Consortiuman initiative announced last year by VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., to support innovations in health care at VCU, recently gave a $50,000 grant to the startup ClearView Surgical Inc. to help refine its AR product for surgical planning and gain customers. ClearView Surgical Inc. was born out of the efforts of Dayanjan “Shanaka” Wijesinghe, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science.

The funding is the penultimate step for inventors who work with the Health Innovation Consortium and VCU Ventures, which offers faculty or student start-ups support to establish a company, locate business entrepreneurs and potential investors, and target a product market. The consortium extends VCU Ventures’ efforts with additional resources and funding.

“This is the secret sauce of HIC,” said Nicole Monk, director of VCU Ventures, within the VCU Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation, which administers the consortium. “VCU innovators bring the technology. HIC brings the customer, the entrepreneur and the investor to the same table.”

This is the secret sauce of HIC. VCU innovators bring the technology. HIC brings the customer, the entrepreneur and the investor to the same table.

Wijesinghe began exploring AR technology as a way to help his lab team better view complex metabolic networks. An offshoot of his work resulted in the creation of the AR surgical imaging platform that transforms traditional imaging, such as those from CT and MRI, into interactive holograms for surgical planning and navigation as well as for nonsurgical interventions. The technology was used in 2018 to help VCU surgeons perform two complex heart surgeries, including one to remove a tumor from the heart of a Virginia college student.

“Since then, we have done multiple use cases in a broad range of domains to demonstrate proof of concept and test feasibility for other types of interventions,” Wijesinghe said.

The VCU Venture Lab pre-accelerator program helped Wijesinghe explore the commercial viability of the AR technology he developed and taught him skills necessary to create a start-up. VCU Ventures hosts the program.

“The process helped us refine the application that we developed to better fit the needs of physicians and surgeons to which it was targeted. Also, the program helped us greatly to narrow down our possible business models,” he said.

Late last year, VCU Ventures, which supports faculty and staff startup companies, approached local health care entrepreneur Dan Neuwirth to explore licensing Wijesinghe’s invention. VCU Ventures connected Neuwirth with Innovation Gateway, the VCU commercialization arm that focuses on intellectual property, licensing and marketing, to discuss opportunities of licensing Wijesinghe’s invention.

A graph explaining the processes of the Health Innovation Consortium.
VCU innovators wanting to commercialize their inventions typically find help through Innovation Gateway, which helps with industry marketing as well as intellectual property and licensing, and VCU Ventures, which assists with start-up support. For those VCU inventors developing health care technologies, the Health Innovation Consortium can accelerate the commercialization process. After validating that the invention solves a problem and has a market in health care, it brings key resources to table: the entrepreneur, the investor and the customer.

“I was so impressed by the potential for this platform to significantly improve surgical interventions that my initial reaction was to form a company that would further develop and commercialize the technology, versus trying to find an existing company to license it,” Neuwirth said. He has since partnered with Wijesinghe and an industry expert to form ClearView Surgical, which has licensed the technology from VCU.

“In my view, augmented reality will become a commonplace tool for surgeons, which will significantly improve surgical outcomes. ClearView Surgical is at the forefront of commercializing this technology,” said Neuwirth, who serves as the company’s CEO.

Wijesinghe said that as a scientist, he lacked a thorough understanding about the commercialization process and the business acumen required to take an invention to market. “The pitfalls are many and it is not easy for a single researcher to navigate those while still continuing a productive research program,” he said.

The new funding provided by the Health Innovation Consortium allows ClearView to hire a computer programmer, purchase hardware and set up the cloud infrastructure to make the venture scalable. The grant also lessens the risk to future investors and allows the startup to raise additional capital. A chief operating officer has also joined the company.

“All in all, [the Health Innovation Consortium] and VCU Ventures together is a great combination and a definite must for those of us who want to commercialize our research,” Wijesinghe said.

The consortium’s members include VCU, Activation Capital, and VCU Health, which has invested $7 million to support programs, expertise and direct investment to accelerate health innovations to market.

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