June 1, 2021 BACK
Presenting: Two Companies
Also: Catching Cancer and Beating Allergies
Welcome to the June 2021 issue of the Pasadena Angels newsletter. This month we’ll open with a short preview of the companies that will present at the monthly meeting. Below that you’ll find an update on a company that’s helping prevent food allergies (Ready, Set, Food), a profile of Dr. Mirianas Chachisvilis and a few details about Joseph Pitruzzelli, Pasadena Angels board member.
June Startups Presenting Tomorrow
Amsel Medical /https://www.amselmedical.com/ Presenters:David Doster & Joe Gerardi
Saving Lives - Amsel's needle-delivered vessel clamping products address unmet needs in a deep pipeline of high value markets, including treatment of Venous Leg Ulcers and non-compressible junctional hemorrhage, supported by non-dilutive DOD funding.
MetaMedia / https://www.metamedia.global/ Presenters: Jason Brenek & Shai Priyadarshi
MetaMedia's cloud-based software platform (developed by IMAX corporation) solves problems for (a) out-of-home venues (like cinemas, sporting arenas), (b) for premium content providers (like Hollywood Studios, Professional Sports Leagues, Concert Promoters) and (c) advertisers by replacing existing means of delivery with a low cost, real-time efficient, flexible, and scalable delivery solution over a very low broadband connection into the venue.
Company Profile - Ready, Set, Food Is Making Food Safer
Everyone knows someone with a food allergy. Four years ago Daniel Zakowski’s nephew had a severe anaphylactic response to a food allergen. In the aftermath, he and his brother-in-law saw the new research that showed that up to 80% of food allergies can be avoided by proper exposure to allergens in the first years of life.
If that seems like news to you, you’re not alone. It’s news to most parents, even though the clinical trials were published five years ago, and the USDA-HHS recommendations were published just last year. There are two problems. First, it’s not common knowledge yet. Second, even many enthusiastic parents who volunteer for a clinical trial still can’t comply with the feeding plan. It’s not easy to feed a 4 month old peanuts on a regular basis.
Ready, Set, Food is changing all that.
Market awareness has been one big challenge. By leveraging numerous top allergists, Ready, Set, Food encouraged the USDA to incorporate that new clinical research into dietary guidelines. Ready, Set, Food has also given away a whole curriculum of non-branded educational literature, like their non-branded websites preventallergies.org and eczemababies.org. Hospital systems and health care providers are able to deliver educational materials to the segment of the population that needs to know: new parents. So, Ready, Set, Food is helping them educate new parents.
Making delivery of allergens easier has been the other big piece of the puzzle. Ready, Set, Food has tackled that by making easy-to-use food packets made of real food that can be easily added to milk or formula. It takes the uncertainty out of dosing, and it makes allergens easy to administer safely. Parents don’t have to buy a shopping basket of allergens and crush or powder them and portion them out. They just grab a packet from the box and add it.
Daniel started the company only 4 years ago. They’ve made incredible progress since then. Products have been launched and lines have been expanded. Revenue grew 4x last year to $1.4M and is projected to top $4M this year. Strategic relationships were formed with several healthcare systems, one of which has become an investor.
And fundraising has gone extremely well. Ready, Set, Food just closed another round of financing, with the total raised now almost $10M. In 2019 an appearance on The Shark Tank raised the company’s profile when Mark Cuban invested. And, the last few rounds have been led by a strategic investor, Danone, one of the largest, most successful food companies in the world.
Being connected to Danone solves one of the upcoming challenges. Being a consumer packaged goods startup means breaking into supermarkets, but Ready, Set, Food has a strategic partner who has already paved that road.
The other big challenge is how to avoid spending years educating the public only to have the market scooped up by a newcomer or an existing consumer packaged goods company. For that, Ready, Set, Food needs some protection of its market position, some “moat” to keep competitors at bay. The obvious approach is to build a trusted brand that parents will rely upon. Ready, Set, Food has that and more, including a strategic partner and investor with tremendous capabilities just waiting in the wings.
Founder Profile - Dr. Mirianas Chachisvilis Takes On Skin Cancer
There are two theories about how innovation works. We would all like to believe that our species is super-intelligent, and that we study science, and from that come to understand principles, and then we apply them to problems and conceive of solutions. What a tidy, nice story.
Then there are the quirky stories about the man who noticed the mold that inhibited bacterial growth and the guy who noticed that old bateria prevented chickens from getting cholera. The first antibiotic and the first vaccine were both total accidents. But, give us a little credit as a species: there had to be a prepared mind alert to the facts.
And, speaking of prepared minds… When it comes to the topic of skin cancer, Dr. Mirianas Chachisvilis is an expert in physical chemistry and biophysics, specifically femtochemistry, cellular mechanosensing and a couple dozen other things like G protein coupled receptors. He did his postdoctoral work at CalTech under Nobel Laureate Dr. Ahmed Zewail. He did a career’s worth of work studying chemistry. And then he focused on biology. After three years of scientific research at Genoptix (now Novartis), he spent almost a decade at La Jolla Bioengineering Institute living from NIH grant to NIH grant.
And here’s where that first kind of innovation - the planned innovation - puts another W on the scoreboard, but only after early struggles. Dr. Chachisvilis put his mind to a problem: how can we use our knowledge of capillary refill rates? At first, the problem of dehydration seemed ideal. Athletes and the military would probably be excited to know how dehydrated they were. But, it turned out that there were already patents in this area and not much had come from them.
He spent a year brainstorming applications when he had an insight:
“We know that cancer involves pathological angiogenesis, which creates abnormal vasculature, which means that blood flow must be different, so capillary refill should be different. Maybe we can apply our measurement of capillary refill differential to the detection of cancer.”
Well, when you put it like that, it seems obvious.
He had studied blood flow at the microscopic level in skin, understanding how it changes, and specifically, how it is cut off and then refills in response to pressure. It’s not just that blood vessels fill up when the pressure is relaxed. The body needs a way to respond to continuous pressure, like standing on your feet or sitting on a rock. Blood vessels dilate in response to pressure and lack of oxygen. But, we’re talking about very small, very fast changes. And, then when the pressure is relaxed, blood flow returns, of course. The key here is that cancer blood vessels respond slightly differently than blood vessels in normal tissue. Not very differently, but slightly differently, in how they dilate and respond.
It’s enough of a difference that if you could measure blood flow to an area very accurately, and if you could plot that data over time and measure not just the amount of blood flow but the rate of change of the blood flow, then you could identify cancer cells. And, it looks like the responsiveness of blood flow to pressure is actually a better indicator of malignancy than the appearance, color, shape and other physical attributes of skin anomalies. In other words, this is better than trained physicians using magnifying glasses, better than AI algorithms looking at pictures.
Sounds great in theory. However, you’re going to need some clinical trial data to get much further. So, Dr. Chachisvilis went into the garage and pieced together some optical sensors, a desktop computer and some other scientific equipment on a rolling cart. He tapped his friends and fellow scientists Eugene Tu and Carl Edman, Ph.D. to help with setting up a clinical study. They paired up with Dr. Shane Hamman, a young up-and-coming dermatologist with practices in La Jolla, CA, and Yuma, AZ, and they made trips out to Yuma to gather data.
They wheeled the prototype around Yuma Dermatology and asked politely to gather data. Senior citizens, who are generally nice, helpful and covered in barnacles, were the perfect audience. One patient stuck out in Dr. Chachivilis’ mind. An older man had to be dragged to the dermatologist by his wife. She was concerned that his shirts were constantly dotted with blood. He had five lesions that, when they saw them, they realized were almost certainly cancerous. It brought home the end goal of their work: making detection easier, painless, non-invasive and commonplace. If identifying cancer was much, much easier than it currently is, maybe he would have been diagnosed years earlier.
Initial results showed 100% sensitivity and 94% specificity. To put that in context, nothing gets close to that. Trained dermatologists with imaging devices (Dermascope) get 90%/70%, and plenty of other devices and systems have been tried and fared much, much worse. Dr. Chachisvilis, having plenty of experience applying for NIH grants, landed a $1.9 million grant to develop a portable device.
Enter Nelson Quintana, an engineer who had worked with Dexcom. He spent two and a half years with Veriskin developing the product that they have today. It’s smaller than a teacup. It uses gentle pressure and optical sensors to gauge blood flow, and it displays results on an Apple watch-style screen. Small, affordable, noninvasive and very, very effective.
Veriskin won a spot at Innovation Alley in San Diego, a TEDx event, in 2017. They had the longest queue of any of the twenty winners displaying their innovations. By this time, Dr. Chachisvilis was already four years into this process. Another trial at Sutter Health in the Bay Area showed similarly promising results and led to a second NIH grant funded in April of 2020 for $2 million.
Mirianas Chachisvilis is from Lithuania via Sweden, but his link to Pasadena is strong, having done his postdoctoral work at CalTech. He pitched the Pasadena Angels in the fall of 2019 with mixed results. When he returned with the Ariel Southeast Angel Partners (ASAP) out of Savannah, GA, in the lead position, the Pasadena Angels got enthusiastic. After doing due diligence, the Pasadena Angels got in the driver’s seat as the lead investor and closed quickly.
He’s now eight years into this project, and all signs are “go.” Next year will likely be occupied by data gathering to continue to optimize the algorithms that differentiate between tumors and healthy skin. The year after that will probably be clinical trials. Medical devices travel a long road.
But, Dr. Chachisvilis has been methodical and patient. He’s taken each step one at a time. Whereas many entrepreneurs are in a hurry to get to market, he expected that it would take a decade. Most medical devices do. His approach with Veriskin is like his approach to scientific research: thoughtful, patient, methodical, prudent. He has hired part time staff and experts as he needed them to keep costs down while he makes steady progress. He has filed patents and has some protection already.
Add another one to the Wikipedia page for real-world examples of the Hamilton lyric: “Immigrants - we get the job done.”
Member Profile - Joseph Pitruzzelli, Sausage King of Downtown L.A.
A bit of advice: if you are going to eat a rattlesnake and rabbit sausage with jalapenos and onions, there’s only one place to get it: Wurstküche. Also, chew some gum afterwards. Joseph Pitruzzelli can help with both. He owns Wurstküche, and he’s got a lot of gum… cases of the stuff. There’s a long story there.
Wurstküche is a landmark in downtown LA. It’s been drawing people from all over the state and endearing itself to the Arts District for more than 12 years. It serves some of the most creative and amazing sausages and beer you can find anywhere. Bratwurst and Kielbasa - sure. Buffalo with Luxardo cherries and mint? (I don’t even know what to say… maybe, “Can I sample some?”)
Pasadena Angels’ members take different paths to the point in their careers where they are part of a group investing in startups. Joseph Pitruzzelli is still in the first half of his career, with a lot of investing, advising and entrepreneurship ahead of him, but he’s already been a member of the Pasadena Angels for 5 years.
And gum was part of his introduction to the Pasadena Angels. It dates back to his early days of investing with startups. He was a successful entrepreneur, and he encountered artists and entrepreneurs with compelling projects in various stages of origination. Sometimes he would invest, but it was more of a casual hobby than a professional process.
Joseph met Jamie Bennett through the Southern California Institute of Architecture. Joseph took Jamie Bennett’s invitation to check out the Pasadena Angels. Immediately he loved the structure, the discipline and the collective wisdom that the large group brought to their investing. He has seen firsthand the value of seasoned investors who can provide a dose of reality to enthusiastic entrepreneurs just in time to stop, pivot and revitalize their startups.
His first investment was “Immuno Gum” - seemed like a brilliant idea. It’s the gum version of “Emergen-C” - remember that stuff? Shoot, Emergen-C was probably bigger than pet rocks. Heck, you can still buy it. What could be better than a version that you could chew? Immuno Gum went out of business 10 minutes later.
Flops like that make you step back and assess your approach. Sure it was ironic, but in a way it was the exception that proved the rule. Everything sounds great in a vacuum, but when you have a process for evaluating it, decision-making gets a lot better. And, flops are going to happen, but process and experience are the countermeasures.
Pasadena Angels has also given Joseph the opportunity to connect the California Restaurant Association’s prostart program with the Pasadena Angels. High school students go through a 2 year program, getting serious and professional instruction and hands-on experience. They graduate high school with a certificate and with some very practical real-life skills. Joseph, being the renowned sausage king of west L.A. and downtown, has had a front row seat at the end-of-year competitions as an Innovation Cup judge. At a time when a record number of 20-year-olds can’t drive, these high school grads are more than job-ready at the start.
Joseph’s favorite aphorism: Bet on the jockey, not the horse. It takes a special person to succeed as an entrepreneur. They need to be passionate about their endeavors and all-in to make them succeed against the odds. They also need to be willing and able to pivot when things aren’t working. (A bit of a paradox, if you ask me.)
Joseph also preaches that often, less is more, but nothing simple is easy to get to. It takes a lot of work to make something “simple.” I think of these as examples of “life (and investing) is full of paradoxes.” But, for a guy who combined a degree in design from a college of arts and crafts with a business degree, Joseph has a different perspective on combining
different ingredients. He thinks of it as combining left and right brain and finding synergy in the union, sort of like rabbit and pork sausage with leeks and carrots.
P.S. The gum is actually gone. You’ll have to get your own.
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Dave de Csepel
Chairman, Pasadena Angels