Innovation Spotlight: Two Penn Grads and Their Cutting Edge Glaucoma Treatment

Feb 06, 2019 5 years ago

In our Innovators Series, we’re profiling University City entrepreneurs, researchers, and companies who are working on cutting-edge technologies and building the future right here in University City. We’ll feature those working in science, technology, medicine, and more to tell the story of how a virtuous cycle of innovation, talent, business formation, and placemaking is unfolding in our community, creating a 21st century economy that leverages knowledge into economic value and development.

With a façade evocative of a space ship, the Pennovation Works building at Grays Ferry Avenue and 34th Street looks like something out of science fiction. Inside, the work is just as futuristic—the University of Pennsylvania’s 58,000 sf business incubator blends offices, labs, and production spaces for companies working in robotics, nanotechnology, and cutting-edge medical devices.

One such space houses a small biotech start-up called Avisi Technologies. Avisi has developed VisiPlate, a state-of-the-art ocular implant designed to remove high pressure from the eye. Two of Avisi’s founders, CEO Rui Jing Jiang and CTO Brandon Kao, hope VisiPlate can treat the presently uncurable: blindness resulting from glaucoma. They might be the youngest entrepreneurs to take on this mighty challenge.

We meet with Rui Jing and Brandon in their small headquarters – one of several ‘garage offices’ designed to mirror the initial workspaces that housed giants like Amazon and Microsoft – to discuss their journey from high school to co-founders of their own company. Rui Jing gives a tour of their office: a softball-sized anatomical model of an eye; their modest desks; a case filled with trophies.

“Feel free to grab some candy if you’d like,” Rui Jing says, pointing to a glass bowl filled with wrapped chocolates. More on that bowl later.

Rui Jing and Brandon graduated from Penn in 2018, Rui Jing with a focus on Finance and Strategic Management, and Brandon studying Materials Science and Engineering. Their skills—she the business strategist, he the engineer—mesh well in their fledgling medical device company.

Rui Jing and Brandon first met at a pre-college program called the Management Technology Summer Institute (M&TSI) at the University of Pennsylvania. M&TSI connects high school students “interested in exploring the integration of technological concepts and management principles,” and features “activities designed to give students the opportunity to learn about the principles and practice of technological innovation.” In other words, it’s a training ground for the exact sort of companies Penn wants to fill the halls of Pennovation, companies focused on innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship.

It wasn’t until a few years into their college careers that these connections really paid off. Rui Jing and Adarsh Battu, a classmate from a Wharton entrepreneurship management class, formed a team for Penn’s Y-Prize, a tech commercialization competition.

The material they decided to pitch was an aluminum nanoplate comprised of nanoscale-thin sheets. It was developed by Dr. Igor Bargatin, Class of 1965 Term Assistant Professor at in Penn’s Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics department, whose research focuses on micro and nanoelectromechanical systems. For context, these sheets measure thousands of times thinner than aluminum foil. “Everyone else was thinking of whether they could use it in drones or robotics,” Rui Jing remembers. “We thought to ourselves, how can we use it to disrupt paradigms in health?” After some research, they concluded that Bargatin’s nanoplate could be used in medical implants.

“The smallest implants in the body are in the eye,” Rui Jing continues. “We noticed that a lot of implants had really high failure rates, they were uncomfortable for the patient, they weren’t very safe, or they had side-effects. We said, let’s use this material and see if we can do better.”

Rui Jing was smart, driven, and resourceful, and Adarsh was a jack-of-all-trades, studying finance, management, marketing, operations, and real estate; yet in spite of their combined talent, they were lacking the engineering know-how to make the product they envisioned. “I was racking my brain about who we could bring onto the team,” Rui Jing says. Then she thought of her friend Brandon. “He was doing materials engineering, and we were very close. At first, he didn’t want to join us at all.”

Brandon laughs at this and Rui Jing smiles before continuing. “He was like, ‘I’m too busy. I don’t have time for this.’” Rui Jing and Adarsh had set up a series of meetings with ophthalmologists; intrigued, Brandon came along to a meeting with Dr. Richard Stone, the William C. Frayer Professor in Ophthalmology working in the Penn Medicine system.

“He talked about current treatments, and how there could be improvements,” Brandon says. As the team conducted more research, they began thinking about how they could use Dr. Bargatin’s nanoplate material to solve difficult problems in vision care.

Rui Jing and Adarsh pitched their idea, which they had named VisiPlate, at the Y-Prize competition. Their device, 1,000 times thinner than other implants for glaucoma, could be placed just under the surface of the eye and allow for shorter operations and more comfortable experiences for patients.

They took home the Y-Prize, and with it $10,000.

Where other students might have pocketed the money and called it a day, the VisiPlate team saw the potential of VisiPlate to one day help patients in need. They invested the cash in a pilot animal study, which yielded a positive safety profile. 

In the summer of 2017, all three rising seniors were living in three different states, but they kept working together. “Every Sunday was now VisiPlate Sunday,” Rui Jing says. “We put together an entity called Avisi Technologies. We put ourselves on a vesting schedule. We kept working at it, chipping away.” The work continued into their senior year, and Rui Jing estimates they were devoting about 22 hours a week to the project, roughly the equivalent of a second part-time job on top of their coursework and paid part-time positions.

Their hard work and ideas attracted the notice of Jeffrey Babin, Associate Professor of Practice in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, who had met Rui Jing and Brandon their first summer at M&TSI. Professor Babin encouraged the VisiPlate team to apply for the prestigious President’s Innovation Prize (PIP). This prize, part of the President’s Engagement prizes first unveiled by Penn President Amy Gutmann in 2014, was open to a graduating senior or team of seniors looking to “envision and implement an innovative, commercial venture that makes a positive difference in the world.”

Remember the bowl of candy from the beginning of the story? The bowl wasn’t just a bowl, but rather a custom Tiffany & Co. crystal trophy with “President’s Innovation Prize” engraved on the bottom under, yes, a pile of candy. The prize also included recognition from President Gutmann, lots of positive press, and more cash, this  time $100,000 plus a $50,000 living stipend per team member. The last piece of the prize was a space at Pennovation, which Rui Jing and Brandon occupied in July of 2018 after graduating. Adarsh, the jack-of-all trades, followed another passion and took a position with private equity firm Silver Lake.

“Being able to have access to this space and these facilities was a huge help,” Rui Jing says. Pennovation offers the collaborative collisions that every innovation hub dreams of, with entrepreneurs sharing ideas, experience, and expertise.

“We’re in a shared lab space, so it’s six companies in one room,” says Brandon. “We each have our own little corner. There’s a lot of people helping each other out there.”They’re also aided by the proximity to other Penn resources, plus nearby universities and medical centers. “All of the universities around are really great,” continues Brandon. “We mostly work with Penn, and the huge health system gives us resources when we need to talk to surgeons or talk to hospital purchasing departments about how the industry works. There’s an Entrepreneurship Legal Clinic at Penn Law and all of these Wharton professors we can talk to.” They’re also close to Wills-Eye and the Scheie Eye Institute, two global leaders in ophthalmology. Nearly all the resources they need to continue taking their product to market are here in Philadelphia.

Despite their positive press, despite the trophy case and awards they’re racking up, the young leaders of Avisi don’t consider themselves successful yet. Brandon says the attention is “a stepping stone to helping patients in the end.”

“Success for us is about, does the implant work?” Rui Jing adds. “Can we actually alleviate the burden that glaucoma places on society? Some people have had surgeries in the past that are now failing. Some patients are on 15 eye drops a day. It’s really heart-wrenching to hear their stories.”

Avisi has its next two years mapped out. They recently became a member of the Johnson and Johnson JPod, a full-service business and technology incubator based at Pennovation. They’ll seek to get proof of concept over the next few months, followed by an FDA-mandated animal study. In March they’ll compete against four other finalists for an SXSW Interactive Innovation Award, and then they will file for an investigational device exemption, allowing them to start human trials, a crucial last hurdle to clear before they can ideally get a 510(k) devices clearance.

The process for product clearance can sometimes take decades. But no matter what happens, Rui Jing, Brandon, and Adarsh – and the constellation of institutions and researchers who have helped them get where they are today – are a wonderful success story. Here at UCD, we think it’s a perfect example of the innovation that our neighborhood helps make possible.