The team behind Apple’s Face ID is developing tiny robots to deliver drugs into the brain, controlled by magnetic propulsion, to target hard to treat diseases.
Los Angeles-based Bionaut Labs raised $43.2mn in a second round of financing led by Khosla Ventures to fund the first clinical trials to try to prove that the robots are safe and effective.
Seven new investors, including Israel’s Deep Insight and Canada’s Sixty Degree Capital, joined the round.
The company is starting with trials to deliver drugs to treat a type of brain tumour and a rare paediatric neurological disorder Dandy-Walker Syndrome, where the robot will be used to poke a hole in a cyst.
It eventually hopes to address trickier and more common diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s and strokes.
Michael Shpigelmacher, Bionaut’s chief executive, founded the company with Aviad Maizels because he wanted to do something “more meaningful” than consumer electronics. The pair co-founded PrimeSense, an Israeli 3D sensor company that they sold to Apple for about $400mn in 2013.
Shpigelmacher said the remote-controlled robots had the potential to become a “platform”, opening the way to treating diseases in the “holy grail” of the brain, across the central nervous system and beyond. The robots could also be used to diagnose disease by taking biopsies.
“There are so many places in the body where science today cannot reach easily,” he added.
The robots — a few millimetres long and containing a strong micro-magnet — would be injected at the back of the head. Then, using an external control system, it would be propelled by magnetic fields to the target area to release a drug and then return to the needle to be extracted.
Shpigelmacher said his “aha moment” came when he realised that even when we try to treat something very local, drugs were always distributed around the whole body, risking widespread side effects.
“That didn’t make sense to me as a roboticist. Robotics is all about accelerating the world around you in a precise manner,” he said.
The US Food and Drug Administration has granted Bionaut Labs a humanitarian use device designation and an orphan drug designation to accelerate its journey through clinical trials.
The company has done animal studies optimising the size and the speed of the mini-robots to try to ensure they do not damage tissues.
Iahn Cajigas González, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania, said when he first heard about the device he was “incredulous” that it would actually work.
“My biggest concern when I hear of any technology is: is it going to be deployed safely? And everything that I saw when I visited their facilities shows that they really are very meticulous at every stage of the way. So I think it would fill a very important niche,” he said.
Samir Kaul, founding general partner at Khosla Ventures, said the long-term opportunity was “massive”.
He said Shpigelmacher was working closely with experts. But he added that it was an advantage that he did not have a background in medical science.
“Elon Musk wasn’t an auto executive, Brian Chesky didn’t come from Hilton, Travis Kalanick was not in taxi cabs. Sometimes big disruptions need to come from the outside,” he added.
Source: Financial Times