SymPhysis Medical: Inspired design of patient-centric medical devices

1 Feb 2021

Image: Tim Jones

Our latest Start-up of the Week combines design and digital technology to deliver a high standard of patient care at home.

“Working closely with clinicians and patients in finding solutions that provide better outcomes for patients is a key motivator in everything I do,” said Tim Jones, co-founder and CEO of SymPhysis Medical.

A graduate of engineering and business, Jones worked at medical device company Medtronic for five years before embarking on a new journey in this field.

“I jumped at the opportunity to take part on the BioInnovate Programme as I wanted to be involved with the entire process of bringing a medical device to market and wanted to work closely with clinicians and patients alike,” explained Jones. “After having a start-up in the UK for six years, I also wanted to get back to that environment and really love the energy that a small team brings.”

That UK start-up was Practical Innovations, based in Swansea. The company’s lead product, the Smart Slice, was a well-designed gadget to quickly cut and dispense fruit such as lemons. It was made to help bar staff and was inspired by Jones’ own experience working in bars while earning a degree.

While his latest idea is a far cry from kitchen gadgetry, the process of being inspired by practice was much the same. Based in Galway, BioInnovate sets out to identify and address unmet clinical needs by immersing its fellows – a mix of clinicians, businesspeople and academics – in healthcare settings. The result sees teams devise and develop medical technologies in direct response to a clear demand.

Jones’ fellow BioInnovate participant, Michelle Tierney, witnessed first-hand the unmet needs of malignant pleural effusion (MPE) patients and set about developing a solution for them.

‘625,000 patients suffer from this condition annually in Europe and the US alone, and our target is to reach 472,000 of these’

Malignant pleural effusion is a build-up of fluid and cancer cells between the chest wall and the lung, which can occur in late-stage cancer patients. It can leave these patients feeling short of breath or experiencing chest discomfort, and their needs inspired Jones and Tierney to get to work.

Tierney has a background in life sciences, predominantly chemistry and pharmacology. She previously worked with Icon, creating digital training solutions for pharmaceutical and biotechnology clients. Now, she is working with Jones on a catheter-based solution for patients with MPE. “625,000 patients suffer from this condition annually in Europe and the US alone, and our target is to reach 472,000 of these that require a definitive treatment,” said Jones.

The SymPhysis Medical team set out to improve quality of life for these patients with a device that would give them autonomy over their care. Jones said that more than 95pc of current MPE patients depend on someone else to help drain the fluid, which can negatively impact their self-esteem and wellbeing.

“Our device enables patients to drain the fluid themselves on a daily basis and not rely so much on a public health nurse or perhaps a family member,” he said. “It also aims to take away some of the anxiety patients can suffer brought on from an increase in breathlessness due to the build-up of fluid. We have designed in a one-handed operation of the device to make it as ergonomically manageable as possible.”

A ‘smart’ element of the device is in early development but the idea is that patients will also be able to manage and monitor their condition via a connected app, which will also communicate progress to their clinician.

“This is an important element of the design that can really have a big impact on minimising hospital visits and help gain a better understanding of the condition and treatment,” said Jones. “With the current Covid-19 pandemic there is now a large emphasis on keeping vulnerable people out of clinical settings where they may be at risk of infection and so our digital approach aims to allow patients to receive the highest standard of care in the comfort and safety of their own homes.”

Jones has calculated that MPE patients could represent a market opportunity of approximately €750m, but the SymPhysis Medical device may also have further applications for non-malignant pleural effusions and ascites, an abnormal build-up of fluid in the abdomen.

‘The pre-planning level of detail necessary to conduct the work remotely probably brought us to an even better outcome’

As well as further development of the medical device, SymPhysis is also preparing to spin out of NUI Galway.

“We currently have our seed investment round open and are due to close the round by May of this year, which will secure the finance we need to expand the team, gain regulatory clearance, manufacture the device and prepare for launching the product in the US market,” said Jones.

So far, the young company has not been set off its course by the ongoing global pandemic and is on track to start a sixth pre-clinical study in March. However, Covid-19 restrictions did mean having to conduct earlier studies with a partner in Italy remotely.

Jones said that, thanks to “an incredible team”, this hurdle didn’t slow them down. “They didn’t skip a beat in any of the studies. In fact the pre-planning level of detail necessary to conduct the work remotely probably brought us to an even better outcome.”

Their milestones met, the route to the US market is being closely followed, which in the medical device space means successfully navigating regulatory requirements – but help and advice is near at hand. “We have a strong network of clinicians in the US supporting our development based across three of the top five cancer centres in the country. We also work closely with our lead clinician Dr David Breen in Galway University Hospital, who has been invaluable in guiding us to design the right device.”

‘Multinationals, SMEs and start-ups alike – it’s a very strong collaborative network, only strengthened by the recent pandemic’

In the long-term, the SymPhysis Medical mission is to “raise the bar when it comes to the design and development of truly patient-centric solutions for palliative care”. The ultimate goal, Jones said, is to “grow an indigenous company that has domain expertise in fluid drainage with a focus on the holistic needs of palliative care patients”.

“We aim to drive further innovation and understanding through data we collect and analyse through the smart element of our technology, which we hope will ultimately help inform clinicians on best practices for these patients.”

It’s also important to Jones that SymPhysis Medical stays in Ireland. “The start-up scene in Galway in particular is world-class,” he said. “The relationships that we’ve built over the years in this space have been vital in getting us to where we are. Multinationals, SMEs and start-ups alike – it’s a very strong collaborative network, only strengthened by the recent pandemic. All of this would not have been possible without the incredible support from BioInnovate and Enterprise Ireland, who continue to support us in a way that really does set us up for success.”

This collaborative network of clinicians, researchers and industry representatives also put their heads together for the recent Inspire Initiative to find ways to help during the Covid-19 pandemic. “We were only a small cog in the wheel, but we helped lead the Ventshare project, which was about identifying a way to share one ventilator between two patients safely. Personally, it was the most rewarding project I have ever worked on,” said Jones.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.