Ed Damiano’s journey to help the millions of people who suffer from type 1 diabetes—which began nearly 20 years ago, when his infant son, David, was diagnosed with the disease—took a huge leap forward this week. The BU biomedical engineering professor announced that the company he formed to commercialize a portable, wearable device that automatically controls blood sugar levels has raised $126 million—enough to get the device, known as a bionic pancreas, through the last stages of development, final clinical trials, regulatory approval by the US Food and Drug Administration, and into the hands of people with the disease.
Damiano’s company, Beta Bionics, a socially minded, for-profit public benefit corporation, raised the money, mostly from institutional investors. “Having raised more than $120 million over the past 10 months, we have placed Beta Bionics on a secure footing for the future and positioned ourselves well for the commercial success we envision for the [bionic pancreas],” Damiano says. He expects his bionic pancreas, called the iLet, to become commercially available within the next 18 months or so.
“The success of Ed and his team on both the scientific-technical side and the fundraising side is remarkable and provides hope for a real breakthrough in the management of type I diabetes,” says Gloria Waters, BU vice president and associate provost for research.
This is paving a new path not just in the science of diabetes treatment, but also in showing that it is possible to be a mission-oriented organization and raise the capital necessary to fully develop a complex medical device.
Type 1 diabetes, which affects about two million people in the United States, is an autoimmune disease that destroys the pancreatic beta cells that normally produce insulin, which allows the body to convert carbohydrates to energy. If blood sugar levels are not carefully managed over the years, the disease can damage organs such as the kidneys and eyes, as well as blood vessels and nerves. That’s where the iLet stands to make a big difference; it mimics the efficiency of the natural pancreas, which fine-tunes the body’s glucose level both by lowering it (with minute amounts of insulin) and by raising it (with tiny doses of glucagon).
For Damiano, the iLet represents a deeply personal quest. Soon after his son, David—now a junior at BU—was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, Damiano began dedicating himself, and his lab, to developing a bionic pancreas so that eventually his son—and millions of other people with the disease—could be freed from the round-the-clock burden of managing a potentially life-threatening disorder by themselves.
Three years ago, Damiano and other parents of children with type 1 diabetes founded Beta Bionics as a public benefit corporation (the first such company was started in 2010, and Massachusetts is now among 31 states that allow this business model). Unlike traditional, profit-driven companies, these new for-profit companies are dedicated to social responsibility and a public benefit mission.
“The technology that we developed at BU is the centerpiece upon which everything else has been built,” he says. “The remarkable clinical data that we have collected over the years with our collaborators at Massachusetts General Hospital is an objective measure of the success of that technology.
“It became clear to us that the best way to ensure that the bionic pancreas would be available to as many people as possible was to build a corporate structure that was as innovative as the technology itself,” Damiano says. “As a Massachusetts public benefit corporation, Beta Bionics is empowered to place the interests of the type 1 diabetes community ahead of all other considerations in carrying out its corporate mission. Beta Bionics was born out of this commitment, and out of the principle that such a commitment would naturally lead to the best and most desirable technology for people with diabetes. It was a theme that resonated with our investors. We were delighted by their progressiveness and their eagerness to embrace and share this core value with us.”
It is significant, says Michael Pratt (Questrom’13), managing director of BU’s Technology Development office, that Damiano was able to raise the money he did for an unorthodox, socially minded company. “This is paving a new path not just in the science of diabetes treatment, but also in showing that it is possible to be a mission-oriented organization and raise the capital necessary to fully develop a complex medical device,” Pratt says.
Beta Bionics raised $63 million in its second round of financing, which was co-led by new investors Perceptive Advisors and Soleus Capital Management. Farallon Capital joined the round as a new investor. The first round of financing, which was led by the Boston-based Eventide Asset Management, also raised $63 million. Eventide joined the second round, along with other first-round investors, including RTW Investments and ArrowMark.
In addition to its small incubator lab at the Photonics Center, Beta Bionics now has a 15,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Irvine, Calif. Damiano says that the company, which has 35 employees, will open an office in Concord, Mass., this fall.
The most recent clinical trial of Damiano’s device, conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital—with funding from Beta Bionics—began at the end of May. It lasted two weeks and involved 10 people with type 1 diabetes. One of them, a young woman, completed the Run To Remember half marathon while wearing the device.
“Thanks @Beta Bionics!” the young woman tweeted after the race. “Your #iLet carried me strong…and across the finish line. Thank you for your #research.”