For those following the local medtech wearables scene, founder Sam Owen has some pretty good news to share.
His company, DC-based Otolith Labs, just closed a $20 million Series A led by Morningside Ventures. Before that, had backing from none other than “Shark Tank’s“ Mark Cuban). Still, with the success of this startup, which aims to quell vertigo, he wants more people to know about the condition he’s trying to help.
“This is something that most people don’t realize is as terrible as it is,” Owen told Technical.ly. “It’s a joke on ‘Arrested Development,’ is what vertigo is, but it doesn’t take more than about five minutes of looking to figure out just how horrible a condition this is — and you wonder how it’s been overlooked for so long.”
Vertigo is a condition that causes dizziness and makes sufferers feel like they’re spinning when they’re not. But Owen actually didn’t set out to develop a treatment for the condition. Before he founded Otolith, Owen said, his background was in physics. He was intrigued by a course in acceleration sensors and wondered if its practice could be applied to the human acceleration sensor. So, after leaving his Ph.D. program, he founded Otolith Labs and initially thought the technology developed would be used for motion sickness.
But after two-and-a-half years, the team discovered that while it did work for motion sickness, it also worked for those with chronic vestibular disorders like vertigo.
“At the time, I had no idea [chronic vertigo affected] an enormous population of people, and that there were no current symptom management options for these people,” Owen said. “So when an ear, nose and throat doctor tried it on his patients, he just said, ‘Forget motion sickness, you have to look at these patients, they’re desperate for anything.'”
The company, which was founded in 2015, now has grown to 10 employees. Otolith developed what Owen described as a “simple headband” with a proprietary speaker that releases small vibrations. This over-stimulates the vestibular system, which Owen said can instantaneously reduce vertigo symptoms.
The device, he said, took about two-and-a-half years to build because the team was looking to make the speakers small, quiet and not overheat. He believes the intervention is crucial, as approximately 4.8% of Americans have vestibular vertigo.
“This is invisible, and so it’s a kind of gone-under-the-radar condition that is truly an expensive, debilitating and miserable condition to live with,” Owen said.
With the $20 million, his overarching goal is to bring the device to market and make it available to patients. That requires finishing the clinical trials for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) certification, which he hopes to complete by early 2024. Since the device has already been fast-tracked through the FDA (it was designated a breakthrough device), he hopes to get the approval by late 2024 and get the headband on the market soon after that.
He also plans to do some limited local hiring with the funding but expects that will largely happen closer to the FDA approval. He hopes that in the interim, people can know more about vertigo and see the unique approach from Otolith.
“Everything that has come before has really just never worked,” Owen said. “By taking this outsider’s approach — I’m not a medical device guy, I’m a physicist and I just happened to have the thought experiment. We have something that can help us take a totally different path and we’re just really glad to help this overlooked population.”
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