CMI Team Success Preview Story: OcuDERM
By Akhil Aniff, CMI Fellow
OcuDerm is a new team that is working on a therapeutic gel for EMTs and paramedics to apply to victims of severe eye trauma. The technology behind OcuDerm was pioneered by Dr. Morgan Fedorchak, PhD, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering and researcher in the UPMC Department of Ophthalmology. The team was rewarded a CMI grant in December 2017. Two of their team members, Michael Washington and Valerie Quickel, went through the Randall Family Big Idea Competition and won $15,000 to help fund their project. We sat down with Michael and Valerie to understand the next steps for the team.
How long has the project been going on?
M: The project has pivoted and changed a lot since I started as a post doc, about a year ago. It was originally started out as a cure for recession of the eye due to some sort of trauma. We initially went through the Innovation Institute’s First Gear program and realized that the market wasn’t really there. While we were going through this program, we were developing the product, and we realized there was a much larger market for an emergency response product. Right now we’re in this stage where we need to finalize and figure out our regulatory pathway.
M: We’re really super critical of the technology and continually trying to see when it doesn’t work. As long as it continues to pass those tests, then we know that we’ll still have a good product that the FDA can approve. We’re still trying to find the perfect niche but we’re ready to pivot again if we need to.
So I’ve been hearing about how your product is a “device” and not a “drug”. Walk me through that?
M: So the main purpose of the gel is to help provide support for the areas around the eye that have received trauma and that primarily translates to mechanical support which means it’s a device. Even though we’re incorporating a drug into the gel, it’s a fairly common drug and the drug would be providing an anti-inflammatory response as its secondary function. Right now we’re just working with the FDA and trying to figure out whether they would consider it a secondary response or not. We’re still going to need to go to clinical trials.
So you both received the CMI funding in December and you just won some money from Randall. Where is most of the funding going to?
M: The CMI is going specifically towards animal testing. We’re using it to collect data that will eventually go into our submission to the FDA. What is good about our material is that it’s cheap to produce and we can run a lot of experiments quickly. Our next step will be to use more money, including Randall money, to run some in vivo experiments.
What’s your background?
M: I’m a polymer chemist by training. I enjoy working backwards and understand the microstructure properties of the material I’m working with and then work up to see what kind of macro level properties the material has and see what benefits it can bring to a particular field. We have this product that we have spent the last year really understanding how it works and now we have a good idea of its potential application.
V: I just graduated from the business school with a double major in business and marketing and minored in French. I met Mike in November when he came to an American Marketing Association meeting and needed some help with their customer discovery. It seemed really interesting and daunting to me and something that I wasn’t really exposed to in my prior course work. When I started working with the team, it coordinated well with the start of Randall.
How has the innovation culture at Pitt, including Randall, the Blast Furnace program, and CMI really helped the OcuDERM team?
V: This whole program has givenus access to a lot of mentors and resources. We’ve been able to meet a lot of people in the start-up community in Pittsburgh who are in the same space as us and being able to learn from their experience has been invaluable. Being in the Blast Furnace program where you’re surrounded by super passionate people has been a great environment to be in as well.
What was the original inspiration for this project?
V: I don’t know if there was an original event that caused the ideation of this product. A lot of it was just a conversation that happened between all the original members of the team.
M: Yeah I would agree. I think what really inspires me is trying to make products that help people. I have a lot of family in the military and being able to give back to them is rewarding for me. I think that’s why I moved from being a polymer chemist to something more translational because I wanted to feel like I was making an impact.