Medical device companies spend so much money, time, and energy convincing the FDA to allow them to sell their products that it’s easy to forget that’s only one step toward a successful business. The next step is getting customers.
Somna Therapeutics, a three-year-old startup in Germantown, WI, passed the first hurdle in March. And it’s making progress on the second, with promising traction in the first several months of selling its Reza Band, a simple device aimed at stopping acid reflux that affects the throat and lungs.
“The market reception for the product has been very good,” Somna co-founder and CEO Nick Maris says.
More than 275 doctors have prescribed the Reza Band, and more than 1,000 of the devices have been delivered to patients. Sales of the product, which costs $299, were growing more than 25 percent per month through September, although that pace has slowed some in recent weeks, Maris says.
The Reza Band is intended to combat laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR), a condition in which acid and other stomach contents are regurgitated back up the esophagus and into the throat and lungs. The reflux often happens while the person is sleeping, and is largely a result of a malfunctioning upper esophageal sphincter—the band of muscles at the top of the esophagus that acts as a valve, tightening and relaxing to allow food and liquids to pass through.
When acid escapes the esophagus, it can cause scarring, constant coughing, problems with swallowing, a hoarse voice, sleep interruptions, and the aggravation of conditions like bronchitis and asthma. In more serious cases, it can contribute to the onset of throat cancer. Standard treatment options include dietary changes, wearing loose clothing, sleeping in an upright position to keep acid from backing up into the throat, taking drugs to suppress gastric acid, and surgery.
Somna’s device is a band worn around the neck that applies slight, targeted pressure—roughly as much as you might use to take someone’s pulse—just below the Adam’s apple. That pressure is enough to buttress the valve at the top of the esophagus and help it prevent stomach contents from getting through, Somna says. The original technology was developed by Somna co-founder Reza Shaker, a gastroenterologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Somna’s target customer is someone suffering from “throat burn” who wants an alternative to pills and surgery, Maris says. The idea is to provide a simpler—and cheaper—remedy that allows patients to sleep lying down.
That message has been resonating, Maris says. Patient satisfaction has closely mirrored the results seen in clinical studies, with about 80 percent reporting that the device works and they’re happy with it. “That’s a good sign for us,” he says. “The standards for acceptability go up when you pay for the product.”
More than 100 of the prescribing doctors have agreed to put their name and practice information on Somna’s website, allowing potential users to search for the nearest doctor that might prescribe the device for them. That provides “validation of the credibility of the product, as more and more physicians are literally willing to put their name behind the product and be advocates for the product,” Maris says. (Those doctors don’t receive any incentives from Somna for agreeing to be part of its searchable database, he adds.)
“The science is demonstrated to be sound; our market receptivity is solid; we’re growing every month, both in revenue and physicians” prescribing the Reza Band, Maris continues. “We just need to tell more people faster.”
Since March, Somna has gone from five employees to 15, mostly new sales representatives. Besides pitching the Reza Band directly to doctors, Somna has been spreading the word through digital advertising, social media, radio spots, and attending industry conferences, Maris says.
“We balance between marketing to the physicians and marketing to consumers,” Maris says.
Somna will likely add more employees, but Maris didn’t have an exact number. The company could seek additional funds from investors, depending on how much it wants to spend next year on advertising and hiring. Somna has raised about $3.4 million to date.
The company’s big to-do items for 2016: turning a profit and winning Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement coverage for the Reza Band. Maris expects the former to happen late next year. The latter is hard to predict.
“Like any new product seeking reimbursement, it’s never a slam dunk,” Maris says. “It’s not an easy thing to do. But it is in all cases a game changer in the business if you’re able to gain reimbursement.”