“The only treatment options are currently medicine, and at some point the medicine is not enough, and these patients get really sick at home,” Clifton said. “And by sick I mean – a heart failure patient is someone who can’t walk to the mailbox, they get out of breath, they get fluid overloaded, they get all this painful swelling in their bodies, and their heart can’t pump effectively enough. At some point, medicine no longer works, and the next best treatment option is when they’re so sick they need a transplant, or a big heart pump surgery. We’re trying to build a device that plays somewhere in the middle, and can maintain the quality of life for these patients.”
Read on the learn more about Clifton’s journey to Procyrion, and Procyrion’s journey to getting its innovative heart pump to the medical market.
SH: I want to start of by going into how you got involved with Procyrion, and what your role has been and how you have seen the company grow.
I was a biomedical engineer when I was in undergrad, and I loved the hands-on aspect of getting to build medical devices, and trying to solve medical problems with an engineering perspective on it. When I was in undergrad, my PI, the principal investigator, was an MD, but he had not done residency. He’d gone straight into working on medical devices, and he’s been very successful with inventions like a cochlear implant, and New York fund DARPA government projects making robotic arms. So I was like, that’s an interesting path, to do medical device development. Just being an engineer doesn’t necessarily mean you understand the disease process, or how to speak the language of doctors or what are the needs worth addressing. I thought medical school would be a really interesting way to learn all those things. I came to Houston for medical school. I went to Baylor. I started looking around town, and tryiing to find, who are the medical startups in town, and who are the people who are really doing interesting things here.
And I kept coming back to the cardiovascular stuff, because we have this huge history of Cooley, Frazier, Debakey, all these big names, and heart pump design and innovation. So I got plugged with as many entrepreneurial activities as I could. There was a class at Rice, Life Science Entrepreneurship. It comes every spring. I got to meet a whole lot of different mentors and role models, and one of those was Billy Cohn. And so I started working with Billy Cohn at the Texas Heart Institute. They call him the Edison of Medicine. He’s a big personality, and he’s great to work with. But he has a lot of different startup companies. He’s a serial entrepreneur. So I started shadowing him, and learning more about what it means to be a medical entrepreneur. I eventually met these people – the founder of this company is also at the Texas Heart Institute, Reynolds Delgado. I started working with him and his team as a medical student, so when I was a 4th year at Baylor, a lot of people were studying for boards, and I’d already decided that I wanted to go back into industry, so I started looking for opportunities here in Houston, and found this team here. They’re still pretty early-stage. They had just received seed-funding and was trying to close their A around. I joined as an intern, on an extended internship while I was a medical student, and then when I graduated, I got hired full-time here.
I’m working as the Director of Research and Development. My day to day roles are designing and carrying out all the preclinical testing, so the studies, and how the pump performs, and the safety studies, and starting to plan what kind of person this is going to best serve. A heart pump, you can use for a lot of things. You can use it for people that have had a heart attack, you can use it for people who’ve had heart failure their whole life, you can use it for people that are at home with a high quality of life, or you can use it for people who are on death’s door, and in need of some serious support. So there’s this spectrum, this multi-dimensional spectrum, of patients you can go after, and there’s over 5 million of those patients in the US. So, part of my job has been to plan the strategy of who can benefit from this device the most. And that’s where I think the medical education has been the most valuable, because everyone on this team is a graduate level engineer, with some entrepreneurial experience, and all have different backgrounds. But being able to understand the disease and target the right patient population has been a big skillset.
SH: Do you think more people in the medical device industry should study medicine, or do you think it’s just a good perspective to have?
WC: I think part of any multi-disciplinary team, having someone that has some medical background and medical understanding is very important. Obviously everyone on this team is very smart, and they all pick it up very quickly, so we all teach other things every day. For example, our CEO is the best machinist in the group, so he’s getting his hands dirty working in the machine shop part of the time, and me, with no formal business education, gets to learn that side from him, going on fundraising trips and all that. It’s another benefit of working at a small company – you get to learn everybody else’s skills and contribute to lots of different areas.
SH: In terms of getting this to market, what have you guys done?
We’re still in the preclinical testing phase. Getting a medical device to market is a long and expensive process. It starts out with proving that the device is safe and effective, for the proof of concept. So you do some simple, sometimes animal studies, sometimes benchtop studies, which shows that the device just works, and that allows you to raise money so that you can go out and try to get to a human study.
Before you go into humans, you’ve got to really convince yourself and convince the regulatory bodies – in the US its the FDA – that it’s safe enough to do. That can be a long, difficult process, but the FDA is really working to try to get more and more medical devices to market faster. They have some new programs that are very interesting, and they’re working with us to pull this off.