Surgeons are all ears for AventaMed’s new grommet device – CEO

19 Dec 2014

Olive O'Driscoll, biomedical engineer and CEO of AventaMed

Cork-based start-up AventaMed wants to make it easier to insert grommets into ears, and the company’s device is grabbing attention, CEO Olive O’Driscoll tells Claire O’Connell.

Ear infections are something of a rite of passage for many young children. At best they are an annoyance, at worst they can cause pain, and, in the long term, even affect hearing, speech development and social interaction.

One tried-and-tested method to relieving pressure build-up in the middle ear is to insert tiny tubes called grommets across the eardrum (or tympanic membrane), so that fluid can drain through.

Each year millions of grommets are inserted into ears, and the procedure can mean a general anaesthetic plus a lengthy booking in an operating theatre. Enter AventaMed, which has developed a hand-held, one-shot device to insert grommets quickly and efficiently.

It’s an idea that turned heads at the recent Innovation Ireland showcase in Dublin, where biomedical engineer and AventaMed CEO Olive O’Driscoll delivered a rapid pitch onstage as part of Enterprise Ireland’s Big Ideas showcase. She had just a couple of minutes to explain how the technology can save time – and potentially even avoid the need for a general anaesthetic – during a procedure that is carried out on some 2m ears in Europe and the US every year.

Time-consuming surgical procedure

“The idea came about when my colleague John Vaughan (co-founder of AventaMed) and I were attending ENT surgeries at the local hospital in Cork,” says O’Driscoll, who was there to scout out potential new technologies for the Medical Engineering Design and Innovation Centre (MEDIC) in Cork Institute of Technology (CIT).

“As part of our job there we look for clinical problems, clinical needs, then we work on a solution. In this case, we noticed that inserting grommets was quite a laborious procedure – the surgeon had to use several different instruments to make an incision and pick up this tiny tube, which is half the size of a grain of rice and insert it with another instrument.”

There had to be a better way, the pair thought, so they looked at the market and designed a device to streamline the process.

“We worked with surgeons in Ireland, the US, the UK and elsewhere in Europe to make sure what we were developing was something that surgeons wanted and could use,” says O’Driscoll.

“And our tests on cadavers (bodies donated for education and research after death) showed that surgeons – including surgeons who had neither seen nor used the device before – could place grommets effectively and quickly. That gave us great confidence.”

AventaMed co-founder John Vaughan and AventaMed CEO Olive O’Driscoll at the InterTradeIreland Seedcorn Munster final with their grommet-placement device. Photo by Conor McCabe Photography

AventaMed gets noticed

Their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Last April, AventaMed won the MedTech Idol competition (organised by RCT Ventures at the Informa Investment in Innovation (IN3) Medical Device 360° Dublin conference), and went on to compete in the finals of MedTech Innovator 2014 in San Francisco, California.

Just last month, AventaMed was named Best Overall Early Stage company at InterTradeIreland’s 2014 all-island Seedcorn Investor Readiness Competition and this month O’Driscoll’s pitch at Enterprise Ireland’s Big Ideas was followed by hours of back-to-back meetings with potential investors.

“We had three hours of 10-minute slots for investors to meet with us, we were choc-a-block and every single slot was filled – I believe some people were turned away,” she says.

“I had the chance to meet some investors that we are already in due diligence with and more that would be interested in entering that stage with us. Everything is really steaming ahead now and we are hoping to close our funding round early next year.”

New year, big plans for AventaMed

AventaMed will also start clinical trials of the grommet-placement device in the UK in the new year, according to O’Driscoll.

“The surgeons are eagerly anticipating treating their patients with the device, and it will be hopefully on the market at the end of 2015 or early 2016,” she says.

“We get lots of phone calls and emails from parents whose children are on waiting lists and suffering from hearing loss and not being able to participate as much as they could in school or playschool,” she says. “They can’t hear properly, their speech isn’t starting as much as it might otherwise and these parents are really quite worried and eagerly waiting to have another option.”

Following interests

O’Driscoll’s enthusiasm for the innovation and how it can meet the needs of surgeons and patients is obvious – and it’s one of the reasons she is driving the start-up with ambitious milestones.

“I live by the mantra that you should try and do what you enjoy,” she says. “It’s a very short life and you should make the most of it.”

She has already condensed several interests in her career to date – including a degree in sports science from the University of Limerick, a master’s degree in biomedical engineering from Aberdeen University, and becoming a trained biomedical engineer and medical physicist in Ninewells Hospital, in Dundee, Scotland.

Switching to a more commercial vein, O’Driscoll then worked with companies in the UK, marketing and launching medical devices for several years before returning to her native county Cork to take up a post with CIT.

“They had set up the MEDIC centre to develop medical devices from concept all the way through to commercialisation,” she says.

“I had been developing medical devices and launching them on to markets and selling them for companies over the years and I always had a passion to do it for myself and so this was a great opportunity to start looking for ideas to bring all the way to market.”

Women in the business of tech

O’Driscoll is also encouraged to see women building more prominent profiles in technology in Ireland, and cites Silicon Republic CEO and editor-at-large Ann O’Dea and Enterprise Ireland CEO Julie Sinnamon as inspirational examples.

“They send a strong message to myself and other women in business in Ireland, and long may it last,” she says.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication