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What do you think of when you think of augmented reality? Yep, finding Pokemon in the Missouri Botanical Garden.
The flagship example of a successful augmented reality startup is Niantic, the makers of Pokemon Go and the forthcoming Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.
Rarely would one expect to hear that an augmented reality startup needs to seek FDA approval. But that’s exactly what happens when your ambition is to virtually overlay personalized three-dimensional diagrams of a patient’s anatomy in real-time while performing heart surgery.
Now augmented reality enthusiasts can claim a more meaningful success story – originating from St. Louis’ booming life science sector.
After thorough peer review from a panel of cardiologists, engineers, and virtual reality experts, the National Institutes for Health (NIH) awarded SentiAR a $2.2 million grant to accelerate development of their tech platform.
Moreover, SentiAR earned an exceptional score: six points off of the best possible score on a 90-point scale. Their score, above and beyond the grant, is a powerful endorsement that health experts believe SentiAR’s technology to be essential to the industry’s future.
SentiAR’s work is representative of the type of research performed every day in St. Louis.
Speaking with husband-wife founding team Professor Jon and Dr. Jennifer Silva (who respectively serve as the company’s Chief Technology Officer and Chief Medical Officer) and Mike Southworth, lead developer at SentiAR, we found out how the network of regional entrepreneur support organizations (ESOs) rallied together to help SentiAR reach a national milestone.
A Rare View
Surgeons in certain fields depend on extremely accurate maps of a patient’s anatomy to conduct an operation.
However, in today’s operating rooms, surgeons can’t interact with these anatomical maps first-hand. Instead, they have to call across the operating table to a technician to ask for the information they need.
Communication between surgeon and technician leaves the door open for error – in procedures where the slightest error can have major consequences.
Southworth and Professor Silva realized that augmented reality (AR) could help surgeons gain a new level of control over their procedures.
“We’re trying to take the AR tech available today and see what we can do with it,” Southworth asserts. “There’s a real need to not close the physician off from the procedure. VR provides an in-depth virtual experience, but it still means you’re cutting surgeons off from the procedure, which doesn’t work. AR is a great solution.”
While Virtual Reality (VR) completely obscures the user’s vision of the real world, augmented reality is designed to enhance it. AR goggles create transparent overlays of data and visualizations that are relevant to the wearer’s task at hand.
SentiAR leverages AR technology to project a painstakingly detailed three-dimensional map of a patient’s heart, which a surgeon can view alongside their work while they conduct an operation.
So far, SentiAR has found successful applications in electrophysiology – the study of electrical activity within the body – especially for studying the heart in realtime, where precision is of the utmost importance. The team hopes that its technology can shorten operating times, limit radiation exposure, and deliver better outcomes for patients.
“By improving the visualization of this information and empowering the physician with direct control of the model, we will make these procedures both simpler and safer,” says Dr. Silva.
That Panel Score
In an NIH review, a panel of experts reviews a proposal and judges a technology on six criteria: significance, innovation, use case and environment, strength of the team, and overall impact.
Each panelist then assigns that technology a numerical score between one and nine, for potential totals between 10 and 90. The lower the number, the better the result.
The NIH granted SentiAR’s proposal a final score of 16 – an incredible score only achieved by innovations of the highest importance. The score indicates that every member of the panel strongly endorsed SentiAR’s technology.
“Knowing that our peers – cardiologists and engineers – see the value of our solution and the potential impact it will have for both patients and practitioners is tremendous validation for SentiAR’s model,” said Dr. Silva.
City As Support Network
The remarkable grade from the NIH – along with $2.2M in grant funding – will allow SentiAR to expedite their FDA approval process.
Once the NIH has given SentiAR the go-ahead, the company can distribute their technology to hospitals around the country. And the FDA has made it clear that it supports the work that SentiAR is doing.
Speaking about SentiAR’s first pre-submission meeting with the FDA last year, Professor Silva said, “It’s been really positive. The FDA is very interested, gave us a lot of feedback, and clearly wanted this to get through the process.”
Several mission-driven organizations facilitated SentiAR’s success. BioGenerator and BioSTL – the company’s lead investors – encouraged SentiAR to apply and gave the team the unwavering support they needed to craft a proposal.
“We really tapped into the expertise around us,” says Professor Silva. “Several other St. Louis community members had served on these panels and applied to the same grants, and they were able to give us a lot of great advice.”
SentiAR’s provenance as a technology developed at WashU and incubated by BioGenerator is further evidence of the world-class clinical medical applications emerging from collaborations between the university and the St. Louis startup ecosystem at large.
Beyond just grants and investments, local partners like Arch Grants and BioGenerator provided SentiAR with a network, support and experience that helped propel the startup into the national spotlight.
“[We] leveraged Arch Grants to help with the execution of the SBIR grant,” Professor Silva adds. “They were critical in getting accounts set up and our ducks in a row.”
About That Panel Score
The NIH panel score means so much because it points to the bet that we’re all making here in St. Louis: not only do we have immense opportunities right under our noses, but people outside of St. Louis can see those opportunities too.
SentiAR is breaking out onto the national stage – but they’re still deeply rooted in the St. Louis community, through the ESOs, accelerator and institutions that rallied together to support them. They are a testament to the collaborative approach that has placed St. Louis among the fastest-growing startup cities in the nation.
They say it takes a village. I say it takes a city.