A Yale startup has raised 75 percent of its $1 million target in the seed round of funding which began in February.
Founded by Ellen Su ’13 and Levi Deluke ’14, the medical technology startup Wellinks features a smart strap for scoliosis back braces called “Cinch.” The product is linked to a smartphone application via bluetooth, which allows users, their guardians and doctors to track data on how long the brace has been worn.
The device integrates monitoring and reward systems that aim to incentivize frequent use and dispel the social stigma of wearing a brace. The app also provides a platform for interpatient communication in hopes of fostering support systems among scoliosis patients.
The team is testing the product and preparing for its market launch slated for spring 2017.
“Not only have [Su and Deluke] been strategic in utilizing the resources and connections through Yale, but they have also worked diligently on developing their venture by traveling to conferences, consulting with doctors and interviewing patients and parents to develop the best device,” Yale Entrepreneurship Institute Communications Officer Brita Belli said.
The co-founders first conceived of the idea for Wellinks during a 2013 summer fellowship program held by the Center for Engineering, Innovation and Design. They developed the design into a business proposition through the YEI Fellowship the following summer.
According to Su, although the pair did not initially know what specific product they were going to create, they wanted to focus their research at the CEID on adolescent scoliosis, which can manifest during puberty and, if untreated, will lead to adult scoliosis.
Deluke, who had scoliosis as an adolescent, said he wore a brace for more than three years and underwent two surgeries. Research studies have shown that effective bracing could reduce the number of surgeries needed, he added.
Deluke said a major challenge for Wellinks are the high costs incurred through hardware manufacturing.
“Mistakes take longer to correct,” Deluke said. “Compared to a software company, if we make a mistake, it could cost a lot of money and many months of redoing things.”
YEI Director Jim Boyle described the startup duo as two of YEI’s and CEID’s strongest “undergraduate alumni” and ambassadors for innovation.
Michael Vitale, professor of pediatric orthopedic surgery at Columbia University Medical Center, joined Wellinks as Chief Medical Officer earlier this year. Vitale said his role is to ensure the clinical applicability of the product and connect the co-founders with relevant resources in the field.
Vitale said there is great evidence that compliance and brace fit, data that Wellinks allows users to monitor, correlate with the success of the brace in stopping progression of the scoliosis. He added that using a brace decreases the chance of surgical treatment.
“There is a real need for this type of functionality, and the device promises to revolutionize bracing not only for scoliosis but also in many others areas such as sports injury or trauma,” Vitale said.
Vitale said interest in Wellinks Cinch has already “spread virally,” and that demand for such “smart braces” will skyrocket.
Deluke described support from YEI as the largest factor in the pair’s decision to transform the idea into a company.
“There is a big difference between creating a device to fulfill a technical goal and what it takes to turn that into a business,” Deluke said. “[YEI] helped us fill the gap through fundraising and finding the right mentors in their network that links teams with people in different fields.”
According to Belli, YEI’s other startups have also been faring well in their development. Chops Snacks, a Yale startup that develops all-natural beef jerky, received $25,000 after being admitted to the inaugural Chobani food incubator program run by the New York-based yogurt company. This June, Ancera, a Yale biotechnology startup focused on detecting food contaminants, raised $8.9 million in its first significant round of financing.