They're just like your insides
Organa is building artificial organs for better device testing
Some of the most interesting UK startups emerge from PhD research. That’s the case with today’s startup, which works in the world of artificial human organs. Scroll down to read all about Organa.
If you’re new around here, this is PreSeed Now, the twice-weekly newsletter that uncovers the UK’s most exciting early-stage B2B and deep tech startups. We offer a really diverse selection - everything from fintech and A.I. to new farming methods, and well, artificial organs.
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Organa’s developing organs that act just like the real thing
If you make medical devices for use with people’s internal organs, it makes sense that you need to test them before you let them anywhere near a human. This often means running trials on organs from human cadavers, or from animals. But repeated testing can be expensive and relies on a ready supply of the right organs.
Organa [very early stage startups sometimes don’t have relevant websites to link to, but I’ve linked to the co-founders’ LinkedIn profiles below] is a new startup looking to solve this problem with artificial organs that allow for faster, less expensive testing of medical devices. The London-based startup’s organs are made from hydrogel material using a cast moulding and 3D printing process, and they can be used to create anything from soft brain tissue to stiff cartilage.
Even better than the real thing?
Co-founder and CEO Manoj Murali explains that while other such artificial organs made from silicones or hydrogels already exist on the market, his startup has managed to create the closest replication of real biological tissue.
He says this is because they replicate real organs based on multiple metrics such as stress-strain behaviour of the tissue, needle insertion force, and friction force. “Those three parameters allow us to independently modulate characteristics of the synthetic tissue and let us get really close to matching biological tissue.”
The competition, Murali says, often focuses on one metric, such as the stiffness of the tissue. He says adding more metrics adds to the realism of the finished product.
“Friction especially adds an element that a lot of people ignore, which is really important in the body. If you can imagine a catheter, for instance, sliding along vessels, there's constant contact with the tissue as it moves along and all of that is dictated by the friction behaviour of the tissue. And a lot of competitors just simply don't take that into account.”
Organa’s target market is primarily companies doing early R&D on a medical device such as catheters, or anything that cuts, sutures or otherwise interacts with tissue.
“We're particularly targeting early stage medical device companies, who are still in the process of deciding on the functionality of the device, exactly how it's going to work, and evaluating it and coming back to the drawing board to improve it further,” says Murali.
“We're able to create the anatomy in the likeness of what they need. Then they just evaluate the device performance by doing whatever they need to do on the phantom model that we make for them.”
Murali adds that Organa’s products don’t necessarily need to be exact replicas of real organs, if a different setup would be more useful. “We can make models that allow them to more efficiently conduct their evaluations outside of human or animal anatomy.”
Know your customer
In terms of a business model, it’s still early days for Organa. “We are operating as a B2B company where medical device companies just pay for the bespoke organ models that we're creating. And it is a very one-to-one process at the minute, where each model that we make has some variations between companies. So we need to go back and do some R&D each time,” explains Murali.
He adds that there’s plenty of consultancy work for customers that goes alongside the creation of the actual organ model, and perhaps there should be a charge for this, too.
Murali says Organa aims to tighten up its process of working with customers as it gets to know the market’s needs better. He explains the process they want to work towards:
“If a company wants to develop a medical device and they need something to do that testing on, they can send us an MRI or STL file, which gives us the 3D architectural anatomy of what they need. We can then input that on our software that can assign the relevant tissue properties to different bits of this model. And then we can send it to a 3D printer, which is capable of printing it with the right anatomy and the desired tissue properties. And then we can ship it out to these companies to do their testing on.”
Organa’s roots lie in the PhD research of Murali’s fellow co-founder Zhengchu Tan. Murali explains that the research was part of an EU project called EDEN2020. “They were developing a robotic neural catheter, which was delivering pharmaceutical payload to deep-seated brain tumours. They were doing testing on sheep’s brains and found it wasn't translating very well to humans. So she was tasked with coming up with this synthetic material that would replicate human brain tissue.”
“It's about six years of research, and then we started commercialising last year, I approached her saying, oh, there's some really cool work you're doing. Why don't we explore if there's any kind of commercial use or commercial spin-out from the work you've done?... We found that by varying the composition of this synthetic material, we were able to create other organ tissues.”
Murali currently splits his time between CEO duties at Organa and his own PhD in the field of mechanical engineering. While that’s not related to Organa, he brings with him business experience (he previously co-founded a catheter startup), “I also help out on the R&D side for things like 3D printing and manufacturing models, where my engineering skill set lends to it. My co-founder really puts in the work for making the formulations and doing some of the testing on biological tissue that needs to be done to get the right accuracy for our materials.”
Organa initially explored providing organs for trainee surgeons to practice complex procedures on. “That's still an angle we explore quite a bit today, but we have pivoted to really looking into medical device development as somewhere we can offer a lot of value to these companies,” Murali says.
The startup is currently taking part in the Conception X programme, which helps turn PhD research into deep tech startups. “We've had some advisers in our company who've gone through that programme and recommend it, so here we are,” says Murali. “They have really good connections in the field we're working in, with medical device companies.”
Is the Force with them?
Organa has started making sales, working with customers and exploring product-market fit with them, figuring out exactly where in the medical device R&D process they can provide most value. “If people are too far along, their R&D process there's not really much we can do if they already know exactly how the device works, but if they're too early in the R&D process, then they don't really need to do any testing. So there's a sweet spot where we can step in.”
So far, Organa has been funded by grants and accelerator support. As they’ve started to generate revenue, they can hold off on equity investment until they better understand product-market fit, and Murali says a funding round is likely early next year.
Ultimately, Organa wants to become the ‘gold standard’ of early-stage medical device testing, replacing the need for animal and cadaveric testing, so the default is an Organa organ instead.
Oh and in case you’re a sci-fi geek and were wondering, no - the name Organa has nothing to do with Star Wars. Murali says he became aware of the link after choosing the name. But if PreSeed Now can beat the market for fertility lubricant in Google results in the space of a few weeks, they should hopefully be fine on the SEO front. If not, at least they’ll have an ally in the form of Princess Leia.
That’s all for now
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