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September 27, 2017

Georgia grows a startup

How Vertera Spine went from university lab to surgical suite

If you want a clearer picture of how GRA’s venture development program works, begin with the happy ending to a good story: the acquisition this month of Georgia Tech startup Vertera Spine.
Vertera Spine, maker of two FDA-approved devices that improve spinal fusion surgery, is now a subsidiary of NuVasive, Inc., a pioneer in minimally invasive spinal technologies. Vertera Spine and its employee base will remain in Georgia for the foreseeable future, according to founder and CEO Chris Lee.
How the deal came to be is somewhat customary. NuVasive had its eye on Vertera Spine for some time, and acquiring the start-up strengthens NuVasive’s position as an innovator in spine surgeries, now estimated to number 400,000 procedures a year.
How Vertera Spine itself came to be is something else — a case study in the workings and impact of GRA Ventures, GRA’s venerable program to drive more discoveries and inventions from the lab to the marketplace.
Rewind to 2012: The Georgia Tech lab of Ken Gall (now at Duke University) invents a way to modify a material called PEEK — commonly used in spinal fusion surgery — so that its surface becomes porous without forfeiting any mechanical strength. To the scientists, the newly invented biomaterial may mean that bones will adhere better to spinal implants after surgery.
Their theory proved to be true following testing on rats in the lab of Bob Guldberg at Georgia Tech. “We’d never seen bone grow into PEEK material like this,” recalls Lee, who collaborated with the Guldberg Lab during his Ph.D. work and had also worked with Ken Gall at another startup, MedShape. “It was a real ‘aha’ moment.”
Enter GRA Ventures. An initial grant of $25,000 in 2013 supported the launch of Vertera Spine. The investment allowed Vertera Spine to expand strength testing as well as prepare for U.S. Food and Drug Administration review.
“We used those funds to buy other devices and conduct additional testing at Georgia Tech,” Lee says. “That first grant was essential for getting our first product through FDA approval. If it wasn’t for that, it would’ve taken a lot longer.”
A second GRA Ventures grant helped fund in vivo testing of Vertera Spine’s first implant device made from porous PEEK (which is short for polyetheretherketone, a thermoplastic polymer). Says Lee: “We found that our porous PEEK material performed better than textured titanium in spine surgeries. That’s when we started getting a lot of attention at medical conferences.”
What happened next at Vertera Spine calls to mind pages flying off a calendar:
  • November 2016 brought a big award: “Top Ten Best Spine Technologies for 2016” by Orthopedics This Week Magazine.
  • A GRA Ventures loan in January 2017 propelled Vertera Spine’s product launch of the FDA-approved device Cohere, an implant in cervical spinal fusion operations. Since then, Cohere has been successfully implanted in 2,000 surgeries.
  • The next month brought the company’s only equity funding round — $3.1 million invested by 29 individuals (The Company previously raised about $3 million in convertible debt.)
  • And summer 2017 brought the green-lighting of an ICD-10 code — which essentially legitimized Vertera Spine’s one-of-a-kind technology for widespread use — as well as FDA approval of Vertera Spine’s second device, Coalesce. Launching this November, Coalesce will be implanted in lumbar fusion surgeries.
Along the way, talks began with NuVasive about a possible acquisition. Startups typically bring in heavyweight bankers to initiate and engage in such negotiations, but Vertera Spine didn’t have to —they had GRA senior advisor Greg Dane to guide them.
“We worked with him throughout the acquisition process,” Lee says of Dane, a Vertera Spine board observer and a seasoned executive who has helped steer dozens of university inventions through the commercialization maze. “Greg was an excellent advisor, so we didn’t have to engage a banker.”
Under NuVasive, Vertera Spine’s porous PEEK technology is poised to transform spinal fusion surgery as a key element of the company’s portfolio of scientifically advanced materials. Lee says the new implants can speed surgical recovery from six to 12 months to six to 12 weeks; that’s because the bone better embraces the implanted material.
And unlike titanium and other metal implants, Vertera Spine’s technology makes it possible to monitor post-surgical progress using more affordable X-rays or CT scans. “So you can assess earlier whether surgery was a success,” Lee says.
According to Ashley Cornelison of GRA Ventures, the Vertera Spine story is a textbook example of how GRA Ventures’ investment and guidance plays a key role in helping to grow companies.
“What made Vertera Spine particularly impressive went beyond their compelling technology,” she says. “They have an impressive team of scientists, engineers, industry experts and surgeons who know how to target and reach milestones for their products. And there’s great potential for more products to be developed from their groundbreaking technology.”

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August 28, 2017

Lessons for Life (and Career)

UGA startup Cogent Education is turning students into scientific problem solvers

Something’s wrong with Anthony.
His legs and ankles are swollen; there’s pressure in his chest. Breathing has become difficult. It’s getting harder to stay awake.
His doctor orders an X-ray and blood sample, which reveals the diagnosis – Anthony’s kidneys are failing. He’ll need dialysis.
Unfortunately, the dialysis machine doesn’t seem to be doing its job. The doctor has to figure out why – so he flies into the dialysis machine to troubleshoot the problem.
All of this really happened, right down to the doctor entering the machine. It happened virtually, through 3D interactive software developed at the University of Georgia.
The doctor was controlled by a team of high school students – they made his decisions and took action on his behalf in a series of situations that look a lot like real life. In the case of Anthony the patient, the software depicts everything from analyzing his blood test to determining the correct “pore size” inside the dialysis machine.
The software was developed eight years ago at UGA, and it’s now being marketed through Cogent Education, a startup receiving early-stage funding from GRA Ventures. Cogent’s interactive case studies take learning to a new level. Students – from middle school through college – explore the world of science by role-playing as professional scientists within a video game environment.
Which makes sense, considering game developers partnered with teachers and expert science educators to develop the software.
“We went to the teacher and said, ‘Tell us where it hurts in the curriculum,’” says Tom Robertson, formerly an associate professor of physiology and pharmacology who co-founded Cogent Education. “Students don’t often understand what a career in science looks like. We want to give them the opportunity to play the role of scientists and help them learn the very difficult concepts and skills they need for successful careers.”
In one case study, students play the role of a veterinary neurologist charged with helping a dog named Marcie, which is suffering from tremors and having trouble standing up. At the heart of the case study is the complex subject of cell signaling, and students hypothesize what’s wrong with Marcie. Then they perform experiments, study data and prescribe treatment.
Student roles in other case studies range from a nurse practitioner treating a young woman who’s had too many energy drinks to a marine biologist investigating coral bleaching on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
“Knowing facts about science will not get you a job,” Robertson says, “but knowing what to do with data and knowing how to solve a problem will. This kind of approach is what the economy needs as well as what will improve education.”
Holly Amerman, who coordinates STEM education and the gifted program for Rome City Schools in Rome, Gal, agrees. “We've imagined in our heads what it looks like to fly into a vein and see blood cells floating through it, or we imagine what mitochondria looks like,” Amerman says in one of Cogent’s testimonial videos. “But now we can actually see it and visualize it more. My students were just absolutely enthralled by the experience.”
Particularly impressive is how teachers track student progress: An embedded assessment tool allows them to see which concepts or skills are confounding individual students. So they’re able to intervene immediately to reinforce key concepts and lessons.
As a company, Cogent Education is a rising star. In May 2016, AT&T picked it as one of six startups in the U.S. to join its Aspire Accelerator class for educational technology. The selection came with a $100,000 investment and ready access to experts inside and outside AT&T. The company has also captured awards and generated notable media coverage.
Most important, it’s the kind of enterprise poised to change education and, ultimately, the workforce.
“Life isn’t a multiple-choice test,” Robertson says. “It’s about finding and solving problems and focusing on critical thinking. It doesn’t matter if you don’t end up being a scientist. You’ve got those skills on board.”

Here's a video with more about Cogent Education:


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August 18, 2017

Growing Virtual Plants Could Help Farmers Boost Their Crops

By Leslie Nemo, Scientific American
What if farmers could grow sugarcane in a matter of seconds, not days or weeks? Scientists are doing just that. Of course, these crops are not sprouting from soil. Instead they flourish on a computer screen.

Digital plants like these are part of a new movement in agricultural science called “in silico,” where researchers design highly accurate, computer-simulated crops to help speed up selective breeding, in which plants are chosen and replanted to amplify their desirable traits. Scientists believe the future of farming is not just in fields, but in graphics, too.

This new area of crop science comes at a precarious time for global food security. The world’s current population is some 7.5 billion people, and the Pew Research Center predicts it will skyrocket to about 9.6 billion by 2050. To make matters worse, researchers have recorded severe drop-offsin soil nutrients and water availability worldwide. As the foundation of how we feed ourselves, future crops will need to make more with less. The millennia-old strategy of just handpicking and replanting the varieties that thrive is too slow, says Eberhard Voit, a biologist at Georgia Institute of Technology. “We need a more targeted approach,” he says. This is where crops in silico may help. By studying plant growth using computer simulations, researchers could discover which attributes make the best pickings and why, in far less time than a traditional growing season.

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