Entrepreneurs questioning old design assumptions to create new surgical tool

Nov. 10, 2013 @ 09:06 PM

Serial entrepreneur Chuck Pell said that at one time, he would not have expected that he would have been involved in a series of start-up businesses and that he’d have his finger in “a half a dozen pots.”

The 51-year-old was a co-founder and the director of science and technology of Nekton Research, a Durham-based underwater robotics company. Nekton was acquired by iRobot, the maker of the floor-vacuuming robot the Roomba. Last year, however, iRobot announced the closure of the Durham office and the transfer of its maritime research to Massachusetts.

Also, Pell is listed on the earliest patent of the Durham-based company Parata Systems, which makes and sells automatic pill packaging and dispensing machines. The patent stems from Nekton, according to a Parata spokeswoman.

Now, his role is as co-founder of the four-man, Durham-based Physcient. He said the company is questioning old design assumptions to create new surgical tools.

Currently, the company is working to develop a new surgical tool called the Physcient dissector. Company CEO and co-founder Hugh Crenshaw, 54, said the tool is being developed for use in blunt dissection, in which a surgeon pulls or moves tissues apart to get to a target, rather than cutting or slicing.

While he did not go into detail about how the tool will work, Crenshaw did say it’s a handheld, electromechanical device that will automatically differentiate between tissues that are not anatomically critical, and blood vessels or other important tissues.

 “The way we phrase it, it disrupts softer tissues, but does not disrupt firmer tissues,” he said. “A firmer one is a blood vessel, a capsule of an organ. But in the softer tissue is adipose and fatty tissue… it disrupts the thing the surgeon wants to disrupt, but not (the one he or she) doesn’t want to disrupt.”

They hope to have the product out by July of next year, Crenshaw said, and are probably going to target plastic surgery as a first application. He said that while there is a defined market for sharp dissection tools, there isn’t one for blunt dissection because “the instruments that people use are fairly primitive.” Their new  tool has been developed in-house, he said, by their team of four.

“What we’re doing is actively going in and disrupting one type of tissues, and having almost no effect on the other type,” he said.

Physcient, first incorporated in 2007, shifted its focus to the development of the blunt dissection tool from another product. They recently raised $868,900 by selling ownership stakes in the company for the development effort, and expect to raise another $600,000, Crenshaw said.

Previously, the company focused on developing a surgical rib spreader called a retractor. For that device, Crenshaw said they examined how tissues tore and broke during surgery, and identified ways to decrease trauma. The product incorporated a sensor to allow the device to reduce tissue trauma.

Both Crenshaw and Pell have backgrounds in biomechanics, which Crenshaw said they used to give them a new way to spread ribs to reduce trauma.

They changed focus, Crenshaw said, as the cost of bringing the retractor to market was expected to be too expensive for an angel group of investors to fund. The company has been able to attract more attention from investors for the blunt dissection tool, he said.

Pell said he and Crenshaw are stubborn about pursuing their goals.

“There are times when rational people in any of these enterprises…rational people would have said ‘forget it. Stop,’” he said. “But we kept going. There’s this thing about making a business, having an idea, about turning it into technology, and knowing if you get something out there, it’s going to change how the world is working for the better. There’s something about that that just gives you grit; you just don’t give up.”

The two -- and actually, all of the members of their start-up team -- have a history of working together.

Crenshaw said that their lead of engineering was a former employee at iRobot and their chief technology officer worked with him at GlaxoSmithKline. He and Pell became friends and co-conspirators when he was working in Duke’s biology department, he said, and Pell was brought on to run the university’s bio-design studio.

“We put together a very excellent team of very smart people who liked working together,” Pell said. “That’s what I like to do – find the smartest people that get along, and have a lot of fun doing something amazing.”