The winner of the largest-ever startup pitch contest in San Diego is aiming to solve a problem that is weighing heavily on the national consciousness.
The same day President Trump signed a bipartisan package of measures to address the opioid epidemic, San Diego startup NeuraLace Medical won $50,000 on Wednesday at the annual John G. Watson Quick Pitch Competition to further the development of its nerve pain management device.
The White House said the legislation passed Wednesday, is intended to reduce the supply of and access to opioids and expand access to prevention, treatment, and recovery services.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that about two-thirds of the 72,000 deaths in 2017 from drug overdoses were caused by opioids—an increase of roughly 11 percent from the year before. (Overdose numbers from the early months of 2018 show some year-over-year slowing, but data isn’t yet available as to whether the trend has continued.)
CEO Shiv Shukla said NeuraLace is targeting chronic nerve pain with its Axon Therapy technology, which stimulates damaged nerves with magnetic pulses in an effort to re-enable the nerves to manage pain.
The company is positioning the device as a non-invasive alternative to opioids, and says it has identified eight additional indications aside from chronic nerve pain for which it could be used.
NeuraLace is one of a number of companies that are working to develop alternatives to opioid drugs, which are notoriously addictive, to treat chronic pain. But R&D has lagged in the field, as detailed in a report released in February by BIO.
Boston-based startup Centrexion Therapeutics said this month it would look to raise $86 million via an IPO to further develop its lead experimental drug, a synthetic form of capsaicin injected into the knee to treat pain from osteoarthritis. Since its inception in 2013, the company has raised $148.5 million in venture capital.
San Diego Quick Pitch winner NeuraLace raised $2 million last year in a round led by FusionX Ventures, a local investment firm that has a partnership with D&K Engineering, which as part of the deal would design and make the NeuraLace devices once the company secures FDA approval. Mooring Ventures also participated in the financing.
The Axon Therapy technology was developed in collaboration with UC San Diego and the region’s VA Hospital.
Launched in 2006 by San Diego’s Tech Coast Angels, Quick Pitch was co-hosted this year by San Diego Venture Group and Cox Business, the commercial division of Cox Communications, a subsidiary of Atlanta-based telecom giant Cox Enterprises. The arrangement increased the pot of prize money to an historic high of $75,000.
With the bulked-up prize package came a larger crowd. For the first time, the event sold out, according to organizers. The audience spilled out of the 534-seat auditorium at Qualcomm where the pitch contest was held.
Second place, which came with $10,000 in prize money, went to Yembo. The startup uses machine learning to make the often miserable process of moving houses easier. The app it has developed, which through computer vision identifies each object in the home, is intended for use by consumers looking to get quotes from moving companies. Yembo ended up taking home double its winnings thanks to its selection as the crowd favorite, an accolade determined by the volume of cheers from the audience.
LynxBio, which has developed a microfluidic technology that it says can help clinicians determine the best course of treatment for cancer patients, came in third, earning $5,000. The company, which started in Wisconsin, earned the audience vote for best pitch earlier this year at EvoNexus, the La Jolla incubator to which it relocated in January.
Six judges determined the top three companies. Three local investors—Qualcomm Ventures’ Carlos Kokron, BioInnovation Capital’s Susie Harborth, and Serra Ventures’ Steve Beck—sat on the panel. So did Jenn Kercher, Section 32’s chief operating officer and general counsel, who is based in the San Francisco Bay Area; Atlanta-based; Kim Shriver, managing director of Cox Enterprises’ strategy and corporate development team, who is based in Atlanta, GA; and Andy Wilson, executive director of the Alliance for SoCal Innovation, who is based in Los Angeles, CA.
The Quick Pitch finalists were selected from among nearly 300 applicants.
Here are the 2018 finalists that pitched on Wednesday:
CB Therapeutics: Biotech company making biosynthetic cannabinoids
CEO Sher Butt
DoWhop: Peer-to-peer marketplace for activities
CEO Rae Lietzau
Evasyst: E-sports social gaming app
CEO Justin Weissberg
Galley Solutions: SaaS for improving large-scale food operation workflows
CEO Benji Koltai
Left: SaaS for group travel organizations
CEO Shayanne Wright
LynxBio: Precision testing of cancer therapies
CEO Chorom Pak
NeuraLace Medical: Non-opioid alternative for managing chronic pain
CEO Shiv Shukla
OnePitch: SaaS for PR professionals
CEO Beck Bamberger
The Atlas Marketplace: Online community for city officials
CEO Elle Hempen
Yembo: Computer vision and AI technology for managing moving services
CEO Siddharth Mohan