From Inside Business By TREVOR METCALFE
A Hampton Roads biotech startup wants to revolutionize the way athletes and soldiers heal from ligament injuries like rotator cuff tears — and leaders at the Department of Defense have taken notice.
Norfolk’s Embody, founded in 2014, is designing and making collagen-based implants that could improve the healing process for soft-tissue injuries in knees, shoulders and other areas of the body.
“Our vision here is to build a really cutting-edge, sports medicine-focused business,” said Embody co-founder and CEO Jeff Conroy.
The implants, the first of which is about the size of a penny, are made of collagen — a protein that makes up most of the connective tissue in the body. Embody leaders said the implants will mimic the structure of ligaments, causing cells to grow new tissue as the implant is being absorbed.
Usually, after a knee injury like an anterior cruciate ligament tear, a surgeon goes in and removes the remaining healthy tissue, said Michael Francis, Embody co-founder and chief science officer. Then, the surgeon reconstructs the ligament with a graft of similar tissue, often from the patient’s hamstring or patella.
Surgery with an Embody implant would preserve that remaining ACL tissue, Francis said. It would repair and heal it rather than replace it with potentially weaker material. The implant, which would be absorbed in about a year, would also help prevent an additional tear.
“It grows in rapidly with new cells and new tissues, and it goes away, leaving new, healthy tissue in its wake,” Francis said.
In Embody’s research and engineering labs on a chilly day in February, scientists and engineers in white lab coats measured out collagen with syringes, worked under glass enclosures and operated what Francis said is the world’s first 3D bio-printer. In just a few years, the company has grown from the two founders to 20 people.
Embody has attracted about $20 million in grant funding from the Army, the Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The military is very interested in making sure its biggest investments — its people — are properly protected, Francis said. For many military personnel, an injury is much more likely to happen in the gym or playing pickup basketball than on the battlefield.
“It’s something that’s not expected that is very commonly going to rip your rotator cuff, your ACL, your Achilles (tendon),” Francis said.
In addition to grant funding, the startup raised $3.6 million during its first funding round in 2018. Big investors included the 757 Angels network and the Center for Innovative Technology nonprofit. Embody will close on an additional funding round later in February, which Conroy expects will pull in just under $5 million.
“What’s important is: That funds us for a year and helps us get to market and start building a company,” he said.
After the funding round, Conroy said, he expects the first product, Tapestry, to receive Food and Drug Administration approval this fall and go to market by the end of the year. He hopes to begin building revenue and expanding Embody’s product line. He also wants staffing to hit 40 to 50 people in the next year and a half.
Trevor Metcalfe, 757-222-5345, email@example.com
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