It took Wicab $26 million and 17 years of twists and turns in research, product development, and testing to get its headset device—which helps blind people, in a way, “see”—approved for sale in the U.S.
The Middleton, WI, company achieved that goal last year, but now it’s setting its sights on a much bigger target: China. And it recently picked up commitments for another $4.3 million in venture capital from Chinese investors to help it get there, CEO Robert Beckman says.
“I think that these investors represent both money, but also have some significant contacts that will assist us in commercializing our device in China,” Beckman says in a phone interview.
Wicab’s product, dubbed the “BrainPort,” substitutes touch for sight. Using a small video camera attached to sunglasses, the contraption converts video signals into light electronic impulses delivered to the person’s tongue via a lollipop-like device. The product is meant to help blind people, in tandem with a cane or guide dog, better interpret their surroundings—such as determining the location, size, and shape of objects, or discerning whether or not objects are moving. (Read more about how it works in this Xconomy profile from last year.)
Wicab’s target customer is a “profoundly blind” person—meaning he or she has no usable vision. In the U.S., Wicab estimates the market size to be about 250,000 people, but Beckman says realistically only about 92,000 of them are likely to be interested in the BrainPort, which requires lots of training and practice to operate. (He compares it with learning a new language.)
Meanwhile, Wicab’s market opportunity in China is something like 5 million people, Beckman says. The company, which employs about 10 people, will create a separate China-based venture dedicated to commercializing its product there, he says.
Wicab raised $3 million from China-based Haiyin Capital in 2014, which helped it connect with the three individual investors who will kick in the $4.3 million. So far, $2.4 million of that commitment has been delivered, Beckman says.
“If we can make headway in the largest market, it will enable us to bring the cost of the technology down significantly, based on volume,” Beckman says of his company’s China push. “And that works hand in hand with making the device as affordable as possible, and to still have a reasonable return for shareholders.”
Wicab’s long path to market illustrates the tough slog of building a high-tech gadget business with relatively few resources. It’s especially difficult when the product requires clinical studies and government approvals in each territory where it will be sold, as is the case with Wicab.
Regulatory approvals don’t automatically equate to sales. U.S. sales have been “minimal” since receiving FDA clearance last June, Beckman says. (The product is also available in Europe and Hong Kong, according to Wicab’s website.)
One of the barriers is the $10,000 price. “The real issue will come down to [insurance] reimbursement in every single country where we commercialize our technology,” Beckman says.
To that end, Wicab has hired a consulting firm to help it secure insurance coverage in the U.S. from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). The company has also met with French government officials who think it might qualify for a program that would pay for a study to demonstrate the effectiveness of the BrainPort, which might lead to insurance coverage in that country, Beckman says.
And in China, Wicab leaders think they will be able to seek regulatory approval from the China Disabled Persons’ Federation—a government affiliate similar to CMS—rather than China’s Food and Drug Administration, Beckman says. That might provide Wicab an easier path to market—and insurance reimbursement—in China, he adds.
But just as important as securing insurance coverage is improving the technology to make it more compact and useful, Beckman says. Wicab is developing the next version of its device, and he hopes to have it ready this summer.
The new features include eliminating the handheld controller that adjusts the settings of the electronic impulses, Beckman says. Freeing up a hand was important to test users, who often are holding a cane or a guide dog leash.
Wicab is also developing mobile applications that enhance the BrainPort. Beckman says the company is working on those apps with computer vision experts at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco, where Wicab’s late founder, Paul Bach-y-Rita, first began researching the concepts that led to the company’s product.
The apps would help the BrainPort identify things like an exit or restroom sign, triggering a special vibration on the tongue, Beckman says. “The direction that we’re taking with the BrainPort technology is similar to the driverless car, in that we think blind people want to stay in the lane when they’re on a sidewalk, read and interpret signs, and avoid obstacles,” he says. “And so we intend over time to develop these mobile applications to work in conjunction with the technology, so we’re going well beyond what you display on the tongue, and provide much more features and benefits.”
Wicab isn’t spending much on promoting the current version of the BrainPort, instead planning to push the newer version harder, Beckman says. That’s the one it will seek CMS reimbursement for in the U.S., and the one it will submit for approval in China. The FDA will also need to sign off on the updated BrainPort device, but Beckman says he thinks that should be a much quicker process than the initial market approval because the new features don’t affect the safety of the device. But, as Wicab knows from experience, government approvals can take longer than anticipated.
With the new China investment and a $975,000 bridge financing round raised in February, Wicab has enough capital to fund operations for the next couple of years, Beckman says. If it can pick up enough sales momentum on its own, he thinks Wicab could become an attractive acquisition target for either a global medical device firm or a big consumer technology company.
“We’ll have to explore both pathways, but it totally makes sense for us to be acquired rather than to try to build a commercial channel,” Beckman says. “I think right now to establish some degree of traction, and show that we can build sales and commercialize our device profitably, will go a long way toward attracting the right partner.”