Swallow Solutions Gulps $1.1M To Push Oral Muscle Rehab Device Sales

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

[Updated 8/7/2015, 6:16 p.m. See below.] Swallow Solutions has raised $1.1 million from investors to make a stronger push into the market with its device intended to boost the rehabilitation regimen of patients trying to overcome swallowing disorders by strengthening their mouth and throat muscles.

The funding round was led by the Wisconsin Super Angel Fund, with participation by previous investors Venture Management, BrightStar Wisconsin Foundation, Wisconsin Investment Partners, NEW Capital Fund, Gen6 Capital Partners, company founder JoAnne Robbins, and several individuals.

Madison, WI-based Swallow has now raised a total of $4.2 million from investors, CEO Eric Horler says. [This paragraph was updated to reflect a more up-to-date investment capital total.]

The company, which has eight employees, received FDA clearance in April 2014 to sell a more advanced version of its original medical device. It now has more than 100 customers in more than 30 states—primarily acute care hospitals and skilled nursing facilities. Swallow gained that initial traction with a small sales staff and contracts with distributors, but the new money should help take the business to the next level, Horler says. Plans include adding clinical specialists to the sales team and potentially hiring more direct sales reps around the country, he says.

“This additional cash infusion, I really believe, is what we need to get this company growing quite quickly,” Horler tells Xconomy. “I’m very excited about it.”

Swallow was founded in 2004 by Robbins, a University of Wisconsin-Madison medicine professor in the division of gastroenterology and hepatology. For years, Robbins has been researching dysphagia—difficulty swallowing often caused by weak mouth and throat muscles.

The condition is sometimes associated with stroke, neurological disorders, or head and neck cancer, Swallow says, and it’s becoming more prevalent as the population ages. Difficulty swallowing can cause food and liquid to get into the lungs, potentially resulting in pneumonia.

Treatment options include modified diets, featuring things like special thick beverages that take longer to travel from the mouth into the stomach, thereby giving the body more time to protect the windpipe, Horler says. Patients can also use techniques like tucking their chin when they swallow or tilting their head to one side to reduce the chances of the food going down the wrong pipe. But in some extreme cases, patients might be left with no option but to be fed via tubes.

None of those options solve the root of the problem, Horler says.

Robbins, in searching for better treatment options for dysphagia, became a leading advocate for “lingual strengthening—basically like physical therapy for your mouth,” Horler says. In clinical tests, including a study of 10 stroke patients, she found that a two-month regimen involving pressing the tongue against the roof of the mouth could strengthen the muscles enough to improve the ability to swallow.

Building off of her research, Swallow designed a device to guide the oral muscle therapy and better track its progress. A custom-molded mouthpiece is placed on the roof of the mouth. The tongue then presses against the mouthpiece, which has multiple sensors that measure pressure at different points on the tongue. These sensors transmit the information through a cord to a connected device that displays the performance in real-time and helps healthcare providers understand which muscles are getting stronger and which ones need more work.

Swallow launched its first-generation product in mid-2012 and sold about 75 units before it stopped marketing the system in late 2013, as it prepared to launch the second version, Horler says. The upgrades in the successor product include more advanced pressure sensors, software that’s easier to use, and a cloud-based data management system that allows caregivers to remotely monitor patients’ progress as they perform therapy at home.

The mouthpiece costs $300, and the full product package, which includes a touchscreen device, costs $3,000, Horler says. Swallow also charges a one-time fee of $850 for access to the cloud-based data management system.

Swallow has applied to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to get federal insurance to cover purchases of its products, Horler says. He hopes to get an answer by early next year.

Meanwhile, Swallow is also developing its own line of thickened beverage products for people with swallowing disorders. The beverages are meant to prevent dehydration and avoid food and liquid going down the wrong pipe. Swallow has licensed patents from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation related to such beverages, Horler says, and is conducting further research before it begins selling the products. That R&D work is being funded by $300,000 in grants, as well as some of the new money from investors, he says.

“What is amazing to me is the impact of being able to swallow on your day-to-day life,” Horler says. “Think about living in a world where you couldn’t go have a cup of coffee with someone, you couldn’t have lunch with someone … without being embarrassed about your inability to swallow or that you have to eat specialized foods or do something weird at the table.”

“There’s a real emotional side to what we’re doing that I just kind of want to highlight,” he adds. “It’s what really drives us everyday.”