Startup aims to give back surgery a helping hand

Juan Pardo is bringing a jolt to spinal fusion procedures.

Working from the Texas Medical Center, his company hopes to use electric fields to spur bone growth in high-risk patients, where the surgery to reduce back pain fails 40 percent of the time.

“That’s almost as good as flipping a coin,” said Pardo, co-founder and principal engineer for Intelligent Implants. “In health care, you want to avoid that. You want to have certain outcomes.”

Intelligent Implants, headquartered in Ireland, opened its Houston research and development office in 2017 with little more than a prototype. It has since created a business plan, researched U.S. regulations and started testing its device in sheep, thanks to a multitude of startup assistance programs at the Texas Medical Center.

These programs include office space at the JLABS incubator, business growth assistance from the TMCx accelerator and access to a machine shop and its experienced engineers at the Center for Device Innovation, the latest offering from Johnson & Johnson at the Texas Medical Center.

“They literally hit just about all of the programs that we have,” TMC Innovation Institute Director Erik Halvorsen said.

The company’s goal is improving the outcomes of a surgery common for chronic back pain.

Spinal fusion involves removing the disk between two vertebrae and putting in a spacer that ultimately allows bone to grow and connect the vertebrae. But in patients who have diabetes or who smoke, for instance, the bone doesn’t always grow. Or it grows in the wrong direction, painfully pushing against nerve roots or the spinal cord.

Intelligent Implants will put a device the size of a fingertip between the vertebrae in high-risk patients. It will then activate an electric field, similar to those found naturally in the body, to attract cells carrying minerals and proteins needed for bone growth.

And if the bone is growing toward nerve roots or the spinal cord, the device will create a different electric field that stops the bone from growing in those directions.

“People are always surprised to hear that bone is electrically active,” Pardo said.

The device will be charged wirelessly through a battery pack, placed in a lumbar corset worn during recovery.

Halvorsen knows firsthand how often spinal fusion surgeries can fail. His 10-year-old daughter, born with a genetic defect that causes severe scoliosis, had four of these surgeries. The first two failed.

“They’re working on a technology that is addressing a pretty significant unmet clinical need,” Halvorsen said.

Team members at Intelligent Implants discovered Johnson & Johnson Innovation in Ireland, where one of the startup’s co-founders is from. They toured its Houston business incubator and fell in love, Pardo said.

They pay rent at JLABS in exchange for access to laboratory and research facilities. JLABS also provides networking opportunities.

Intelligent Implants then joined TMCx, the business accelerator that provides a 12-week curriculum to help companies shape their business plans, refine their value propositions and gain customer insight.

And finally, it joined the Center for Device Innovation, a collaboration between Johnson & Johnson and the Texas Medical Center that got up and running earlier this year.

The Center for Device Innovation houses technologies and projects owned by Johnson & Johnson and those of external companies like Intelligent Implants. The outside companies use the center’s resources in exchange for privileges like first right of refusal, meaning Johnson & Johnson gets the first shot at commercializing the startup’s technology.

Houston is the first city to get this Johnson & Johnson center, though it could eventually be expanded to other parts of the country, said Dana Deardorff, senior director at the Center for Device Innovation.

Deardorff said Intelligent Implants’ expertise in electrical stimulation and wireless monitoring complement the in-house engineers who lack that experience. He also described Intelligent Implants as an example of how companies can receive different types of assistance from the 100,000-square-foot TMC Innovation Institute.

“It really highlights the nature of the ecosystem we’re trying to build,” Deardorff said, “and how each piece does have a unique offering.”

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