In addition to bigger biotechnology names like SenesTech, Flagstaff is host to many startups in the industry. Here are three of them.
POBA MEDICAL & SYMPLE SURGICAL
Rows of small clear medical balloons fill trays inside POBA Medical’s 1,500-square-foot wet lab in NACET's Flagstaff Business Accelerator atop McMillan Mesa. The company is churning out dozens of the balloons for customers across the world, said Daniel Kasprzyk, the company’s founder.
A longtime Flagstaff resident who previously worked at W.L. Gore and Associates and also created the medical device equipment company Machine Solutions Inc., Kasprzyk delved into two new startups starting in 2013.
That was the year he founded Symple Surgical, a medical device company that was initially based in Menlo Park, California, in the “shadows of Facebook’s massive buildings,” Kasprzyk said.
But when rent was going to increase by thousands of dollars a month, Kasprzyk decided to move the entire operation to Flagstaff, where he was still living, and set up shop in a lab in NACET’s business incubator.
Symple Surgical’s catheter-based technology uses electromagnetic waves to target specific disease states or certain tissues, then eradicate targeted pre-cancer cells or hyperactive nerves, Kasprzyk said. The company uses the technology to attack early-stage esophageal cancer cells, he said.
Not long into product development, however, Symple Surgical ran into challenges finding reliable catheter and balloon suppliers that offered the type of lead times and prices the startup needed.
Kasprzyk decided his team would just do the job themselves, which is how POBA Medical was born in 2016.
Made of nylon and polyurethane, the company’s custom-developed balloons are used to guide certain therapies for companies like Symple Surgical, deliver pharmaceuticals, fracture plaque and deliver transcatheter aortic valves, Kasprzyk said. The company is working on five projects for customers across the world and Kasprzyk said he expects POBA will complete more than 20 projects by the end of the year.
The teams for Symple Surgical and POBA Medical are still small, with three employees working for each, but POBA plans to add three more people to its staff in the next two weeks, Kasprzyk said.
He said he doesn’t have plans to move out of Flagstaff, even as the company grows.
“What is keeping us in Flagstaff is it’s a great place to live,” he said. “I travel all over the world and there are other cities I’d live in, but I could list them on one hand.”
Protein Genomics is hardly Burt Ensley’s first startup. The Sedona resident worked with a startup that used plants and bacteria to clean the environment and another that grew plants containing high contents of good-for-you minerals.
In 1999, Ensley moved to Sedona from the East Coast after visiting for a work trip and being shocked by the beauty of the area. Now, Ensley works out of his home as director of Protein Genomics, a company he founded in 2002. Much of the product testing and development work takes place at the company’s lab at NACET in Flagstaff, he said.
The company’s focus is on producing human elastin, an important component of skin that provides strength and elasticity, for uses in wound healing. Through a lab in Munich, the company ferments genetically modified bacteria and yeast that grow the elastin inside of them, Ensley said. The elastin is then extracted using a detergent, purified and dried. The final product that gets shipped to Arizona looks a bit like cotton candy, Ensley said.
At the NACET lab, Rob Kellar, the other half of Protein Genomics’ two-man team, works with Northern Arizona University graduate and undergraduate students to spin the elastin into a thin fabric sheet using a 35,000-volt electrospinner. The final product looks like filter paper or toilet paper, but is much more durable and flexible, Ensley said.
The fabric is so flexible, in fact, that it can be stretched out to 150 percent of its length and snaps right back, he said.
Applied to wounds, the company’s initial tests have shown their elastin sheets significantly increase the rate of wound closure, he said. The company’s intention is to get Food and Drug Administration approval for the technology. Kellar also is experimenting with how to spin the elastin into tubes that can be used to repair or replace blood vessels in the body, Ensley said.
The outlook is grim for a patient who experiences a hemorrhagic stroke — 80 percent of such cases, caused by a rupture in the wall of an artery that supplies blood to the brain, are fatal, said Tim Becker. An associate professor at Northern Arizona University and head of its Bioengineering Devices Lab, Becker is also the chief technology officer at Aneuvas Technologies Inc.
The four-year-old company, which is located in NACET, focuses on optimizing a specific biomaterial to help heal a brain aneurysm, which is a bulge in the artery wall. Like a balloon, if the aneurysm continues to grow it can eventually burst, causing a hemorrhagic stroke, Becker said.
Aneuvas’ medical device is inserted into the body not through surgery but via small catheters inserted into blood vessels in the leg that then feed into brain, Becker said. The company fills a medical balloon with a gel-like soft material that stops the “balloon” of the bulging artery from growing and then allows the vessel to regrow over the balloon neck, he said.
With improved diagnostics, doctors can detect aneurysms and Becker said his company’s technology can be a non-invasive preventive measure.
“Instead of waiting until they get symptoms, (patients) have the option to have it fixed before it causes an issue,” he said.
Working with grant money from the National Institutes of Health, Aneuvas is collaborating closely with Becker’s NAU lab to test and optimize the biomaterial to ensure it performs the same way every time. The next phase will be safety testing and manufacturing and Becker estimated it would be at least five years before the company could be making a product that could be purchased by hospitals.
Continuing the work in Flagstaff holds many benefits, he said.
“On the technical side, Flagstaff is excellent because there is a large pool of people trained in sciences and engineering...that have knowledge to really move this forward,” he said.