05 Aug 2016
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Accelerating Change on Medicine’s Final Frontier

Jordan Amadio (MD/MBA 2010) launched the world’s first neuroscience-focused accelerator to help entrepreneurs fast-track new treatments and technologies
Re: Mike Kelly (MBA 1990); David Gellis (MBA 2010); Vinod Nambudiri (MBA 2010); Greg Stock (MBA 1987); Jim Shinn (MBA 1981)
by Robert S. Benchley

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Photography by Susan Young

“If you’re a brain geek, this is the best time in history to be alive,” says Jordan Amadio (MD/MBA 2010), founder and managing partner of NeuroLaunch, the world’s first neuroscience startup accelerator.

“We’re on the brink of a golden age in neuroscience,” he says. “Billions of dollars in research funding is pouring into the space. We have tools that are unprecedented in their power, their ease of use, their accessibility, and their cost. The number of neuroscience articles published in academic journals has increased exponentially, year over year, for the past three decades. The same has been true for the number of brain-related patents granted, which is a marker of commercialization potential.”

But here’s the bad news, says Amadio: “There are still an estimated 2 billion people worldwide who will suffer from some form of neurologic or psychiatric illness. Brain cancer is almost always fatal. There are no cures for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or ALS. And mental health remains a global burden.”

Worse yet, despite all of medical science’s efforts, most of those challenges have remained unconquered foes since Dr. Harvey Cushing, considered the father of modern neurosurgery, was operating at Harvard Medical School nearly a century ago. And even with all the activity Amadio describes, the bench-to-bedside time for new treatments has averaged more than a decade—longer than in many other fields—and, by some estimates, fewer than 5 percent of neuroscience-related patents are successfully commercialized.

Amadio, currently chief resident in the seven-year neurological surgery residency program at Emory University, in Atlanta, was troubled by the gap between neuroscience’s potential and its progress, so he set out to find out why it existed. He and a group of colleagues began interviewing entrepreneurs who lead neuroscience startup companies, asking them what the principal barriers were between themselves and success. Their responses were unexpected.

“To our surprise, access to funding was not the bulk of the problem,” says Amadio. “Although capital is important, fewer than half of the entrepreneurs said that the major barrier was money. The majority of the problems they were facing involved other types of access: to mentorship with deep sector experience, to partners, to prototyping, to community visibility, to a network of peers. Many of them felt isolated.”

Amadio sensed these challenges were not unique to neuroscience startups, and he began looking at the consumer software sector to see how innovation there seemed to happen so much faster. That’s when he discovered accelerators, boot camp–like programs that speed innovation by providing exactly what the early-stage neuroscience entrepreneurs indicate they are lacking. There are more than 200 accelerators operating worldwide, and many of them have been working with technology and software startups for as long as a decade. Somehow, though, the highly focused field of neuroscience had been completely missed.

So Amadio teamed up with two Atlanta-based partners—Christopher Klaus, a serial technology entrepreneur who provided $1 million in startup capital, and Jim Schwoebel, a biomedical engineer—and, in November 2014, the three opened the doors of NeuroLaunch. Since then, the company has worked with two “batches,” as accelerators refer to groups of clients, in sum 11 companies.

Headquartered across town from Emory, near the Georgia Institute of Technology, in the heart of Atlanta’s Tech Square, NeuroLaunch provides a curated 90-day program for neuroscience entrepreneurs. The company has assembled a core staff and a roster of more than 140 mentors who are experts in its four areas of focus—product development, operations, clinical and regulatory affairs, and business development. The curriculum is delivered through formal presentations, office hours with mentors, networking sessions, company tours, and workshops. In return, NeuroLaunch receives stock in the companies it assists.

The culmination is a “demo day,” when its portfolio companies join other neuroscience startups in presenting to prospective investors. At the program’s second demo day, held last August, NeuroLaunch’s five Batch 2 companies were joined by 24 additional startups and more than 300 investors, entrepreneurs, and innovators that are focused on neuroscience.

“It was the largest gathering of neuroscience startups in history, that I’m aware of,” says Amadio, pointing with pride to one such early-stage firm, Atanse, founded by Michael Kelly (MBA 1990), which manufactures devices designed to inject stem cells into damaged areas of the brain, to repair it from the inside in a minimally invasive way, without harming surrounding tissue.

Amadio’s upbringing set the course for his eventually attending HBS. His father, an Italian-born engineering-trained executive with Lockheed Martin who travels one-third of the time, met Amadio’s mother, an American, when he enrolled in an English class in a language school she was running in Rome. Amadio, who holds dual Italian-American citizenship, grew up on the go, spending time on both sides of the Atlantic. He says his six years in Atlanta is the longest he has ever lived in one place.

“I’m really a product of both of my parents,” he says. “I get my desire for precision from my father and my entrepreneurial spirit from my mother.”

Amadio became interested in medicine as a boy. He felt a calling to help other people and it led him to pursue a mix of science and computer classes and activities. When he was a teenager, his grandmother had a series of debilitating strokes, which brought some focus to his interests. His determination sharpened further at Princeton, where he majored in physics and began to think seriously about becoming a neurosurgeon.

“I realized it was a good fit,” Amadio says. “I like working with my hands, and I like finishing things.”

Exploring Harvard’s dual degree MD/MBA program had two origins: Princeton engineering lecturer James Shinn (MBA 1981) and biotech entrepreneur Gregory Stock (MBA 1987), the brother of one of Amadio’s biology professors.

“They impressed upon me how interesting it would be to get a business education, and how much it would broaden me,” says Amadio.

In fact, Amadio and two classmates—David Gellis (MD/MBA 2010), today medical director of Population Health at Boston-based Iora Health, and Vinod Nambudiri (MD/MBA 2010), now an internist, hospitalist, and associate program director for the internal medicine residency at Grand Strand Medical Center, in Myrtle Beach, SC—became the first students admitted to the MD/MBA program directly from undergraduate school.

Amadio’s own interest in technology, however, led him to the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences & Technology (HST) program, a joint venture between the two universities that admits approximately 30 students each year, rather than Harvard’s conventional MD track, which admits 130. Founded in 1970, the interdisciplinary HST is one of the oldest and largest biomedical engineering and physician-scientist training programs in the United States.

“It was the perfect program for me,” says Amadio. “I have never been a fan of disciplinary boundaries. I view all of the disciplines as looking at the problem in different ways. When I know what I want to accomplish, I pick up the tools to get there.”

Amadio realized early on that increasing the speed of innovation in neuroscience would require expanding beyond Atlanta. NeuroLaunch opened additional locations in Boston and San Francisco last summer, and the entrepreneurs for its next batch of investments will meet in all three places.

NeuroLaunch is also raising additional capital to expand its operations globally. Amadio wants to franchise the NeuroLaunch model worldwide, and he’s already in talks with groups in London, Singapore, and Israel. Over the next year, the company will hold neuro startup forums in a number of cities to begin building a global community of neuroscience innovators who can be fed into its accelerator program.

Amadio’s expansion efforts will be supported in having been named the 2016–2017 Innovation Fellow by the Congress of Neurological Surgeons. In that role, he will be setting up a program engaging neurosurgeons from around the world, to develop the next generation of translational technologies.

NeuroLaunch is also working with startups outside the medical sphere: consumer-facing businesses that are developing products to tap brain waves to facilitate learning, meditation, mood and alertness, and a variety of other functions and activities.

“We’re helping the whole spectrum of neuroscience entrepreneurs capture the value around their idea,” Amadio says. “I believe very strongly that we’re starting a movement.”

In that same spirit, he has found ways to forge relationships between the physicians at Emory and the engineers at Georgia Tech, such as inviting the engineers to grand rounds.

“Many physicians don’t have opportunities for interdisciplinary interaction,” Amadio says, “but we can’t afford not to be interdisciplinary. Innovation should be part of the mission of every physician. We have been at the medical game for several thousand years, and we still have so much to learn. Every physician has the responsibility to push the field forward.”

So how does Amadio find the time to train to be a neurosurgeon and run a startup whose business is helping other startups?

“Everyone makes time for what’s important,” he says. “Emory has been very supportive, and my partners and staff make it possible to be on two paths simultaneously. When you sign up for neurosurgery training, you know it will be one of the most grueling experiences of your life. It’s sort of like entering a monastic order. Still, nothing has more promise for benefitting society than innovation in medicine, and I began training with that in mind. Neuroscience is medicine’s final frontier, and I believe the 21st century will be the century of neuroscience.”

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