In this episode of Disruptors we speak to serial entrepreneur Amar Sawhney, CEO of Ocular Therapeutix, about the work the company is doing to change the paradigm of eye care.
Sawhney has a knack for turning gel into gold. Over the years, he has managed to leverage his research in hydrogel technology into 6 companies, including one snapped up by Genzyme early in the decade and another that Covidien (NYSE:COV) predecessor Tyco Healthcare acquired in 2006.
His latest company, Ocular Therapeutix, uses hydrogels in its ReSure Ocular Bandage for protecting corneal incisions. Applied as a liquid, the bandage changes into a soft, protective barrier that eventually breaks down into tears. However, as Sawhney tells us in this episode, Ocular has its sights set on bigger indications.
There are few in the space with Sahwney’s combination of vision and execution – he’s truly a disruptor.
Brian Johnson, Publisher, MassDevice: If I get this straight, you’re in essence trying to take eye drops out of the system in terms of delivering medicine to people with chronic conditions such as glaucoma. That seems like a really large-scale mission, why do you think this company, this technology, is the right company to do such a thing?
Amar Sawhney: No, you’re right, this is a complicated problem. This has been the holy grail of ophthalmology for a long period of time, to find a way to be able to tackle chronic long-term diseases like glaucoma. When I talk to glaucoma patients who are not able or don’t remember to take their drops, we may think it’s a simple thing but they can’t do it. And there is an art to taking drops and there is a real need, so we first try to convince ourselves that there is a real need for this.
So then the question was why would we, a little company, be the right people to do this? I looked at this like it was a bio-materials problem; it was not a new drug discovery problem. It’s a problem that bio-materials technology had not been appropriately designed to tackle this. People tried to do this with punctal plugs in the past but they used silicon base in which there was a small central channel through which the drug would fit – but there’s not just not enough capacity.
We’ve actually developed some neat things, for example, we are adding fluorescence to these plugs so it’s as simple as looking in the mirror and shinning a little blue light. You would be able to monitor what you are actually taking and know that there’s a drug delivery system in place. Then we designed our plugs to sit below the punctual opening so nothing projects out, so the patient doesn’t feel a thing.
Second we designed our technology so they would be narrower when they go in and they shrink in length and expand in diameter so they lock themselves in so they are not easily displaced. Easy entry, but not easy displacement.
And then finally, we needed to develop the right drug delivery technology in terms of the rate at which these drugs are played out. So we have a composite structure – there’s a gel and micro-particles inside it. Within those micro-particles, we select different compositions and different sizes, and we create a blend of those to get the right zero-order release profile. So otherwise with regular drug delivery systems, you will not get a zero-order release profile. So there is a lot of complexity that goes underneath it and you need to understand devices, you need to understand polymers, you need to understand ophthalmology, and you need to understand drugs. So synthesizing all those things, this knowledge lies in silos, and we felt that we were well qualified to synthesize the knowledge and create the right type of drug delivery systems and eventually the new drugs.
Brian Johnson: Which of the six or so companies that you’ve developed do you think had the biggest impact on this breakthrough here? What positions you now better than some other companies? Because it seems like when you describe all those silos, you’re one of those people that actually fits inside all of those silos.
Amar Sawhney: I think with the impact of each company, we are able to learn something new about this technology, and we stand on the shoulders of that company and go to the next and the next one. Some companies we discovered how to spray these products, how to make them stable. In this one we have really become serious about drug delivery technology.
We probably talked about drug delivery technology and it is applicable for the other things but the necessity and the market size, you know glaucoma by itself is a $5 billion dollar market. That combined with the fact that the eye needs very little drug and much more efficient utilization of the drug, it’s sort of like the perfect storm of bringing together the need, the technology, our understanding, and what makes a compelling product is having all of these 3 things come together.
And compliance right now rests in the patients’ hands. If we can move that to the physicians’ hands, then we can be assured that all patients are compliant. And if we can do that, drugs can have a much better impact without the side effects. That’s our dream and we believe that ophthalmology is best suited, and Ocular Therapeutix is best positioned to address that.
Brian Johnson: You recently met the president of the United States, what did you tell him? Was he one of the tougher audiences you’ve ever had? Or was he pretty easy for you?
Amar Sawhney: I actually found him to be engaging and charming. But politics aside, medical device industry and medical innovation in general are going through a tough phase in this country. I believe this is happening for 2 reasons: one is that the FDA has become much more focused on compliance, rather than focusing on getting products approved, so a lot of time lines are getting prolonged. Time lines that usually takes 3 years now prolong to 5 years, 5 years to 7 years, which means that whatever money you raise will have to go further. At the same time, it has become harder to raise funds.
The net of it is that money is harder to come by for innovation and medical technology and also if it’s going to take longer, then often times return on investment becomes harder. So people are becoming more reluctant to deploy dollars. It’s an area that the country leads in right now, and I felt that having the lead erode and move over to international markets would be a shame.