AURORA, Colo.—Impressio Inc. said it has perfected the use of liquid crystal elastomers outside the body with a novel approach to energy-absorbent helmet liners, research that has landed the company on a short list to receive a $1 million prize from the NFL.
Now, the small startup outside Denver will look to move its patented dissipative polymers inside the body, collaborating with Atlanta-based MedShape, Inc., to create a joint replacement device for an arthritic condition that occurs in the big toe.
Impressio and MedShape—which share similar leadership pedigrees—recently received a prestigious $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for the research, which both companies hope will lead to a certified and commoditized device several years from now.
"We believe our innovative material can improve human life from head to toe," said Amir Torbati, chief scientific officer and co-founder of Impressio. "After receiving this NSF SBIR Phase I award, we will be focusing on the MTP joint as our first entry point into the body. Once we successfully prove that our technology works in joint replacements, we will start focusing on knee and spine implants."
The mission is complex, as the companies attempt to develop a new surgical treatment for hallux rigidus, a disorder of the metatarsalphalangeal joint located at the base of the big toe. As experts in the foot and ankle surgical device realm, MedShape will help develop the device that contains the LCE produced by Impressio. According to MedShape, the potential device would mimic the function of native cartilage in the MTP joint while reducing wear.
"MedShape has extensive experience in developing and commercializing foot and ankle orthopedic devices manufactured out of unique biomaterials," said David Safranski, director of basic research at MedShape. "With that, MedShape will help with designing a finished device from the liquid crystal elastomer and performing the necessary biomechanical testing to validate the device performance."
And getting the product to market is the ultimate goal for the two companies, as well as the intent of the grant from the NSF, according to Torbati. Impressio is the official grantee and will spend about 60 percent of the $250,000, while MedShape is the sub-awardee and will have access to between 30 and 40 percent of the money.
"NSF is proud to support the technology of the future by thinking beyond incremental developments, and funding the most creative, impactful ideas across all markets and areas of science and engineering," said Andrea Belz, director of the Division of Industrial Innovation and Partnerships at NSF. "With the support of our research funds, any deep technology startup or small business can guide basic science into meaningful solutions that address tremendous needs."
According to Belz, after a small business earns a Phase I grant, it can apply for a second grant worth up to $1 million. Businesses then are eligible to receive an additional $500,000 in matching funds with qualifying third-party investment or sales.
"Being vetted by the NSF is a great confirmation of our technology, but our team has been even more impressed with the NSF resources such as the I-Corps program that gave us an opportunity to gain valuable understanding of the medical device space," said Christopher Yakacki, CEO and co-founder of Impressio.
All in the synthesis
The technology going into the LCE might be ground-breaking for concussion protection and orthopedic devices, however the raw material is not.
Liquid crystal elastomers—which have liquid crystals embedded in the backbone of the polymer—have been around for 50 years, Torbati said, and are a known quantity for vibration isolation, as well as heat and energy dissipation.
"We didn't invent liquid crystal elastomers," Torbati said. "What we worked on was the synthesis, how to make these in a scalable manner. It was a long process from the starting material."