From Collaboration to Product Validation: An Interview with SentiAR CEO Jim Howard

Medical software company SentiAR is bringing innovation in augmented reality (AR) technology to the healthcare world. CEO Jim Howard opens up about the St. Louis-based connections that have helped mobilize his vision for the future of medicine.

Estimated reading time: 4 minute(s)

Jim Howard is no stranger to entrepreneurship. Since the early 90s, Howard has worked in a number of startups across the pharmaceutical and technology industries, eventually landing in St. Louis in 2004 with Pharmacy OneSource, ultimately exiting to Wolters Kluwer Health in 2010. His current endeavor, SentiAR, is a testament to the power of the St. Louis entrepreneurship network.

Jim Howard, CEO, SentiAR.

Since receiving an Arch Grant in 2017, SentiAR has come ever closer to achieving its mission of transforming both the patient and clinician experience during interventional cardiac surgery in the electrophysiology lab. In a recent discussion with EQ, Howard shared more about SentiAR’s work, what’s happened to the company in the past year, and why St. Louis has been the perfect place to grow the business.

Entrepreneur Quarterly: Can you tell us a bit about how SentiAR began and how your product works?

Jim Howard: SentiAR was born out of a partnership between the school of medicine and the school of engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. I met the academic inventors through venture capital connections, and I was drawn to the disruptive potential.  Like everyone on our 10-person team, we feel this is a chance of a lifetime to significantly disrupt healthcare with truly cutting edge technology with true clinical application.

Historically, proceduralists’ view in the procedures is controlled by technicians provided by mapping vendors like Abbott or J&J. SentiAR creates h an augmented reality health software that enables clinicians to see, measure, and interact with holographic images of patient’s heart during interventional procedures – completely hands-free. Right now, we’re focusing on the analysis and treatment of cardiac arrhythmias, but the technology isn’t limited to that by any means.

The software works by converting real-time mapping data, typically displayed on 2D monitors, into a hovering hologram of the heart. Because we use AR instead of VR, surgeons can explore images while the patient is on the table, able to see the rest of the room. This should translate to shorter operation times, reduced radiation exposure for clinicians, and higher precision with eventually could lead to improved patient outcomes.

We’re currently seeking FDA approval in Q1, 2020 with internal and external regulatory consultants at Graematter — a former Arch Grants recipient.

Since receiving your Arch Grant last year, how has SentiAR changed?

JH: First of all, the grant was timely for SentiAR’s life cycle stage. Although we’re more advanced than earliest-stage startups because we have a business model, funding, and working prototype, we don’t generally have the access to revenue that digital health companies, for example, access since we can’t commercialize without FDA-approval.

With the grant, we were able to make earlier hires to our development team, matching pay of large companies. Beyond the cash, the value of the discounted accounting and legal services we received from UHS and Bryan Cave, respectively, was truly an investment by that firm into our strategy – which are incredibly important for a burgeoning medtech company – have approached the value of the Arch Grant itself.

Since receiving help from Arch Grants, we’ve received a $2.2 million non-dilutive federal grant from the NIHas well as $2.2M in venture funding from St. Louis-based companies including BioGenerator, Cultivation Capital, and Oakland Capital Partners, aiding in the development of our first-to-market technology and allowing us to expedite the FDA-approval process.

But what’s most satisfying is probably the validation that our technology and leadership are getting from the industry. Our federal grant came with an NIH panel score of 16, which means that our technology is both very significant and very likely to succeed. Dr. Jennifer Silva, one of our inventors, was recently named an Entrepreneurship Fellow at WashU.  Inventor Jon Silva, PhD and Mike Southworth, co-founder, are arguably THE technology experts in real-time intraprocedural application of AR. It’s clear that cardiologists, engineers, and other peers in our industry recognize the value of our solution and its potential impact.

What do you think St. Louis has to offer startups and entrepreneurs?

JH: I can only speak from my area of expertise – healthcare – and the St. Louis ecosystem is second-to-none.  I sell this strongly as I recruit top talent from cardiology device hotbeds like Minneapolis and Cleveland.

I lived in both the Bay Area and Seattle during the dot com boom and bust. While both those markets are certainly well-funded hotbeds for healthtech startups, there was insignificant local collaboration due to a cutthroat sense of competition.

Businesses and investors in St. Louis, on the other hand, are more than willing to contribute to each other’s success. We’ve received resources, grant money, and support from the Washington University, Arch Grants, BioSTL, local VC’s and angels, and more. All of these key players have come together to help take SentiAR from a great academic project to a thriving, disruptive company generally known as the most advanced use of AR in healthcare.

Everyone in St. Louis is so generous that I ask myself, “When are they going to ask for the big payback?” No one is concerned with that; it is genuine, and I don’t think there’s a stronger environment than St. Louis for entrepreneurs to launch their concepts or prototypes and surpas objectives with these helping hands.

The Arch Grants Global Startup Competition takes place every year. Check out the impact of their venture philanthropy based economic development program in St. Louis.

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Margot Gerould is a Content Manager and St. Louis Correspondent at Longneck and Thunderfoot, a brand publishing agency with offices in New York and St. Louis. She writes about the impact of innovative ideas and startups on the St. Louis region and beyond.