Research, partnerships yield products to save infants, cut NICU stays

PHILADELPHIA— Armed with seed funding and connections through Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania , two veteran Philadelphia-area health care investment entrepreneurs teamed with a prominent researcher to develop products that will improve premature babies’ health, predict which ones might develop a deadly infection and, ultimately, reduce their length of stays in expensive intensive care units.

This journey from medical problem to marketable solution is detailed in the latest case study released by “The New Philadelphia Casebook: Studies in Health Care Innovation,” a preeminent publication that is part of the Health Care Innovation Collaborative, a CEO Council for Growth initiative to draw attention to the Greater Philadelphia region’s accomplishments in health care.

While seeking insights into the clinical needs of women’s and children’s hospitals, Tracy Warren and Tammi Jantzen — owners of Astarte Ventures and Astarte Medical Partners — met and eventually teamed with Harvard Medical School assistant professor of pediatrics Katherine E. Gregory, Ph.D., RN, who’s also director of newborn care improvement and analytics and Haley nurse-scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Gregory’s clinical and research experience showed a dual need: improved feeding standards for premature infants and the ability to anticipate the onset of a devastating intestinal condition called necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC. If NEC doesn’t kill a child, it sets the stage for future developmental consequences. The problem is that neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) treat all infants as if they are at risk; in truth, only about 7 percent of very-low-birthweight babies develop it, Gregory said. Knowing which babies are trending toward or away from it would allow medical professionals to make better nutritional decisions, she added.

Eventually, the three women developed one platform, NICUtrition, to create two products: NICUtrition Guidance, a bedside feeding dashboard that gathers multiple nutritional details from each feeding and notes whether hospital protocol was followed, and NICUtrition MAGI, a gut health score that indicates NEC risk. Astarte Ventures and Astarte Medical Partners are commercializing the platform.

Not only will the products help keep premature babies alive and healthier, they could reduce the average 77-day NICU stay. That could result in substantial cost savings: Each day in a NICU costs about $6,000. Additionally, it’s the “first time an institution will ever be able to look at how its kids are being impacted by its ability to follow or not follow its own protocol,” Warren said.

Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania, a state-related program that partners with venture capital to boost the region’s technology community, recognized the value of Astarte’s work into the popular field of gut microbiomes from the beginning. In addition to critical seed capital, it helped make important connections for the Astarte team with other angel groups and interested parties.

“The combination of smart science, smart development and smart investment is a cornerstone of the groundbreaking innovations coming out of the Philadelphia region’s health care ecosystem,” said Claire Marrazzo Greenwood, executive director and vice president of leadership engagement for the CEO Council for Growth. “The fact that we have so many different resources to foster cutting-edge science that can have an immediate impact is a testament to why the Philadelphia region is leading the pack in health care innovation.”

The CEO Council for Growth in January began releasing innovation case studies on a monthly basis. These include:

  • MedCrypt, a technology security company specializing in encrypting and securing medical device data, which received support and investment from Radnor-based Safeguard Scientifics, a growth-capital company. The case study can be found here.
  • iBreastExam, a handheld breast cancer screening tool spearheaded by Drexel University. The device has been used in India to screen 75,000 women for breast cancer. It has screened women in Myanmar and will be launched in Mexico. The case study can be found here.
  • Individualized Management for Patient-Centered Targets (IMPaCT), a University of Pennsylvania program sending health care workers into disadvantaged Philadelphia neighborhoods to improve residents’ health.
  • Facilitated Health Networks (FHN), an Independence Blue Cross initiative to decrease health care costs without sacrificing quality, access and patient experience. FHN has signed on three key partners: Jefferson Health, Holy Redeemer Health System and the University of Pennsylvania Health System.
  • Frontier Programs from Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania (CHOP) provides extra funding and support for CHOP’s most promising enterprises. Seven programs have been funded since 2015, with strides made in the fights against leukemia, inflammatory bowel disease and mitochondrial disease.
  • Thomas Jefferson University is reshaping medical education with an infusion of design thinking. Collaborating across disciplines, students in medicine, design and engineering build skills for finding solutions in the health care landscape of the future.
  • CareLink CareNow, a robust information technology-enabled network of care coordination support services created by Christiana Health Services. It uses IT systems to access all available sources of a person’s health data so that health care professionals can work together to assist a patient.