Mark Waller, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune By Mark Waller, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
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on August 30, 2013 at 9:29 AM
For a senior project in biomedical engineering at Tulane University, Ben Cappiello faced the task of developing some kind of health care technology. In deciding what to pursue, he recalled talking to his mother, a nurse practitioner and nursing professor at the University of New Hampshire, about conferences she attended where people discussed the high effectiveness but complex insertion procedure and low usage rates of intrauterine devices for birth control.
“I was just a naive engineering student,” said Cappiello, who was thinking, “‘I can come up with a better way to do it.'”
He started working on a solution, a single device that replaces five separate tools and inserts IUDs with button pushes to complete each step. His senior project stretched into a start-up business, which Cappiello supported by working as a bartender. Looking for help launching the product, he teamed up with Shuchi “SK” Khurana, who moved to New Orleans in 2009 after gathering experience bringing patents to the market for a research and development firm in Ohio. Their company, called Bioceptive, moved into the New Orleans BioInnovation Center business incubator in 2011.
Bioceptive has been gaining attention in 2013. A Boca Raton, Fla., investor group called New World Angels announced in March that it would invest $1.1 million in Bioceptive along with First Light Ventures of Atlanta and Maryland-based Calvert Investments. In July an international grant program called Saving Lives at Birth announced Bioceptive qualified for $250,000 to finish readying its device for distribution.
“We’re trying to really democratize IUD insertion, so that everyone can do them, anywhere,” Cappiello said of Bioceptive’s invention. “All you have to do is squeeze this lever.”
Unlike traditional IUD insertion, the inserter doesn’t require the medical training of obstetrician-gynecologists or nurse practitioners and seeks to avoid pitfalls such as perforations of the uterus or accidental, often undetected, expulsion of the IUD.
It eliminates steps. Instead of a potentially painful sharp clamp for pulling the uterus into position for insertion, it uses a suction mechanism. It still takes a health care provider to use it, but Cappiello and Khurana argue it’s much simpler to learn for a wider range of caregivers.
They expect to sell the device in the United States first and then Europe, but they also say it could have the added benefit of helping in disadvantaged parts of the world, giving women greater power to access to effective, inexpensive, discreet birth control. Khurana said he expects the price for an inserter to fall somewhere between $40 and $100 for health care providers.
Khurana, who grew up in India, said he sees a great potential benefit to family planning in places such as his native, developing country.
“What I saw was a big social impact,” Khurana said about his first impression of Cappiello’s idea, “right away.”
That aspect attracted the recognition from Saving Lives at Birth, a $50 million program run by the United States Agency for International Development, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and government aid programs from Canada, the United Kingdom and Norway.
Wendy Taylor, a USAID director who helps coordinate Saving Lives at Birth, said the program’s goal is to find creative ways to reduce deaths of mothers and babies before and during childbirth in poor regions around the world.
“We really want those new best ideas, those groundbreaking ideas that can leapfrog traditional approaches,” Taylor said.
Vying for the grants, she said, 53 finalists traveled to Washington, D.C., to pitch their ideas and 22 of them, including Bioceptive, were named nominees, which means they qualify for up to $250,000 in funding payable upon finalizing contracts with the program.
Birth control fits into the grant’s mission, she said, because maternal and baby survival rates improve when women delay pregnancy beyond their teenage years and when women space out pregnancies by three years.
IUDs, she said, are underused because of limited access to the complicated insertion process, but they are cost-effective over time, often working for years by neutralizing sperm, preventing ovulation or both. She said Bioceptive’s inserter could give women in poor communities control over their reproductive fates.
“That gives women more choice that they have available to them to meet their birth-spacing needs,” Taylor said. “You’ve got a highly effective device that can work very well in preventing unwanted pregnancies, yet you’ve got very limited access.”
The Bioceptive inserter, she said, could increase access by allowing lower skilled providers to insert IUDs. “This really addresses a lot of the roadblocks that have prevented the use of IUDs so far,” Taylor said.
Challenges that remain for Bioceptive, which also face any effort to spread a product in poor countries, she said, include mass-producing the device, distributing it, operating in foreign markets and creating systems to maintain and repair devices after they are deployed.
To help their effort, Cappiello and Khurana joined with Florida doctor Stewart Davis, who serves as Bioceptive’s chief executive officer. Cappiello is chief scientific officer, while Khurana serves as both chief operating officer and chief financial officer. They’ve got patents and are working on Food and Drug Administration approval.
Cappiello grew up in New Hampshire. Khurana studied engineering in India before moving to the United States and earning a master of business administration degree from Ohio State University.
The entrepreneur support system in New Orleans, with its incubators, coaching programs, reasonable business and living costs and state tax credits, helped keep Cappiello in the city after Tulane.
“It’s a fun place to be an entrepreneur,” Cappiello said. “There’s a lot of energy around it.”
Khurana moved to the city when his wife got a job here. And after working for a firm taking unused patents left over from research projects conducted for clients and commercializing them, Khurana said he wanted to work on a company of his own and was encouraged to find New Orleans a nurturing place.
“That gave me a lot of confidence,” Khurana said about his previous job. “That’s why I wanted to be an entrepreneur, try it out.”