Chris LaFarge, president and CEO of MedicaMetrix, is betting on his firm’s ProstaGlove device to change the way doctors track and treat the prostate. The product is essentially a disposable rubber glove armed with sensors LaFarge says will provide a quantitative method for tracking the volume and growth rate of the prostate — the only human organ that never stops growing.
LaFarge talked with MassDevice about the Wayland-based company’s drive to create a new “gold standard” for digital rectal exams, the challenge of landing U.S. venture backing and why Europe may see the company’s first rollout.
MassDevice: How did you come to be involved with medical devices?
Chris LaFarge: I was originally trained as a biologist at Harvard. I did bio-medical research at Harvard, Beth-Israel Deaconess Medical Center and eventually went back and got a Yale MBA. I came out of that and a professor I’d studied strategic planning with decided to set up a first company in the natural resources area. I went on to start a number of others in that space [but] it was a ghastly business.
I started looking around for other areas where there was a need and I was talking with another guy who was a urologist. I was investigating an opportunity in anesthesia and we got talking and he said, essentially, “We have this problem: We stick our fingers up people’s butts, but we have no idea what the information means.”
So we started looking at it from a business point of view and we thought it was a good opportunity.
MassDevice: You’ve had some success on the investment trail in Europe, but not so much stateside. Why do you think that is?
CF: A lot of the [venture capital firms] around here are in pretty deep trouble. A number have announced trying to raise funds and failing, others are not opening new funds to focus on managing their existing funds. Some will fold after their current investments cash out. This has been going on for a year and a half. The recession we’re all worried about now started a year and a half ago in the VC world.
It’s all about the bank, which is why in Europe there seems to be funds. But they’re restricted by their fund rules to only do 50 percent of investment outside their country. We’ve raised $2 million and we’re trying to raise $4 million. We’re talking to three other European funds right now. If I had to predict, we’ll complete the raise in the next six months and it will be all European money.
MassDevice: What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learned during this recession? What’s the takeaway?
CF: Never, ever, ever try to fund a company from VC sources.
I have funded everything that we’ve done [with past startups] with strategic money. But in this climate there weren’t the players with the capacity to do the raise whom we could identify, so we said, “Why don’t we do a traditional venture raise?”
Even before the recession started, VCs were all pretending to be merchant bankers looking for B rounds and C rounds — or even IPOs — not looking for startups, or looking for what they called “startups,” which were actually going concerns.
MassDevice: What’s the competition for the Prostaglove? How big do you think the market for it is?
CF: It’s a start-up, second-generation prototype we’re in the process of taking to the next stage. It’s lab bench-tested only. The prostate is the only organ in the body that continues to grow throughout your life. The question right now is, without knowing what the size and growth rate is, it’s very difficult to predict when these complications are going to happen. When it breaks they fix it, with surgery or partial resection. The idea behind this product is that if one could measure the size and volume of the prostate and get some sense of that growth rate, it essentially becomes a preventative maintenance approach similar to hypertension or cholesterol treatments.
Digital rectal exams are not a bad way to try to get a sense of the prostate, but they’ve now done some studies that show no correlation between the estimate from an exam and the actual size of the prostate. Standard practice is to do an exam every time you see a male patient over age 40, whether it’s once a year, once a quarter or once a month. The prostate grows, but it grows slowly. If you’re starting to do that measurement around age 40, problems might not arise until you’re in your 50s or 60s.
The market is urologists treating men over 45 with urinary problems. About 20 million exams are performed each year in the U.S. and in Europe it’s more like 40 million. I just read a projection that over the next couple of decades the number of men over 60 is going to triple. It’s a growing market in every sense of the word.
We’re preparing to try and go in that direction [to Europe]. CE Marking and 510k approvals are essentially the same thing — they’re made off the same data. Whether we launch first in the EU or the U.S. depends to a large extent on where the money comes from. If youre launching in Europe but you have a strong American base that’s a considerable advantage. In the EU the big thing they’re trying to figure out is the U.S. market, because it’s a big market. The EU is 27 countries, plus divisions within in each country. It’s a very complex market — it’s twice the size of ours in the U.S., but it’s very fragmented.