No pain, just gain

Houston company creates portable device that eases pain without the use of drugs

For years, Squid Compression has helped ease the pain of patients in doctor's offices. Now, anyone can get the treatment on the go. Photo via squidgo.com

Many of the estimated 50 million Americans who suffer from chronic pain turn to drugs — including heavily abused opioids — to relieve their symptoms. Houston-based startup Portable Therapeutix LLC's drug-free solution to pain management seeks to put a dent in the market for prescription painkillers.

In 2018, Houston-based Portable Therapeutix introduced Squid Go, a portable device that's designed to ease the pain and swelling of sore joints and muscles. It's a follow-up to the company's Squid Compression, a pain management device launched in 2013 for patients at rehabilitation centers, hospitals, doctor's offices, and the like.

Squid Go enables consumers to apply two approaches — cold therapy and compression therapy — to relieving joint pain and swelling caused by arthritis, bouncing back from athletic activities, or recovering from an injury or surgery involving muscles and joints. Variations of the device can treat ankle, back, leg, knee, shoulder, or wrist pain.

To reap the benefits of Squid Go, a consumer uses the device for just 15 minutes. Squid Go — which combines a cold gel pack with proprietary compression technology — features special air pockets that inflate and deflate, gently massaging the body part needing treatment. That massaging boosts circulation and reduces swelling.

"Increased circulation brings more nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood to the area, promoting recovery," says Sam Stolbun, co-founder of Portable Therapeutix. "Meanwhile, [the] gentle compression also drives the pain-relieving cold from the gel pack deeper into the tissues to alleviate soreness and discomfort."

The coldness of the gel pack fights inflammation.

Stolbun says someone can take the lightweight, portable Squid Go device to the office, to the gym or anywhere else for on-the-go pain relief. It even can be used without the cold gel pack for compression-only therapy to improve circulation and decrease swelling. The Squid Go pump delivers about 15 treatments before it needs to be recharged.

Squid Compression received clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a prescription-only device in 2013 and gained over-the-counter status in 2014. The consumer version, Squid Go, employs the same technology and operates the same way as Squid Compression, so a second FDA stamp of approval wasn't required.

Pricing for the heavy-duty Squid Compression system starts at $700. The consumer-friendly Squid Go system goes for $300 or $350, depending on its purpose. Users can buy extra wraps and gel packs to supplement the system.

Stolbun says he and co-founder Shai Schubert developed the Squid devices after realizing that existing pain-fighting cold packs provided only superficial relief, while water-based treatments were inconvenient and offered no compression advantages. Still other cold and compression therapies on the market are expensive and generally aren't covered by health insurance, he says.

Stolbun says that "it became apparent that a reasonably priced, well-made, portable, and effective pain relief and recovery device would meet a need for a broad range of consumers — from athletes to seniors."

Stolbun, a sports enthusiast and bakery mogul, and Schubert, a scientist and entrepreneur, established Portable Therapeutix in 2011.

The company's debut product, Squid Compression, still enjoys success, but Stolbun says the company has shifted its focus to Squid Go. Portable Therapeutix plans to pump up sales for Squid Go via its online presence, he says, as well as through physical therapists, sports trainers and other professionals who've used Squid Compression but want to offer the less pricey Squid Go model to their clients for in-home treatment.

Portable Therapeutix is backed by private investors; the amount of funding it has received isn't available. The company doesn't release revenue and profit figures.

Today, the company employs just one person in Houston but will add workers as its distribution pipeline expands, Stolbun says. Sales, marketing, and customer service representatives are scattered around the country. Stolbun, the CEO, is based in Houston, while Schubert, the chief technical officer, is based in Boston.

Portable Therapeutix relies, in part, on word-of-mouth praise to promote Squid Go. Among those hailing the device is Lee Ward of Houston, who describes himself as a competitive tennis player.

On the Squid Go website, Ward explains that he'd been suffering from progressively worsening tendonitis in his knees for a couple of years.

"I tried a number of remedies, including ice and gel packs, immediately following my tennis workout, but both remedies were ineffective and difficult to use," Ward says in his online testimonial.

He then discovered Squid Go and became a fan.

"The best thing about [Squid Go] is its ease of use. It provides a quick, effective treatment that makes it ideal for daily use by both the serious and recreational athlete," Ward says.

Smart tech

Courtesy of Squid Go

Squid Go combines a cold gel pack with proprietary compression technology and features special air pockets that inflate and deflate, gently massaging the body part needing treatment.

Houston-based Moleculin has three different oncology technologies currently in trials. Getty Images

Immunotherapy and personalized medicine get all the headlines lately, but in the fight against cancer, a natural compound created by bees could beat them in winning one battle.

In 2007, chairman and CEO Walter Klemp founded Moleculin Biotech Inc. as a private company. The former CPA had found success in life sciences with a company that sold devices for the treatment of acne. That introduction into the field of medical technology pushed him toward more profound issues than spotty skin.

"Coincidentally, the inventor of that technology had a brother who was a neuro-oncologist at MD Anderson," Klemp recalls.

The since-deceased Dr. Charles Conrad slowly lured Klemp into what he calls the "cancer ecosphere" of MD Anderson. In 2016, the company went public. And it looks like sooner rather than later, it could make major inroads against some of the toughest cancers to beat.

Klemp observed that while Houston has the world's largest medical center, "the tragic irony" is that other cities have far more biotech money ready to be invested.

"The Third Coast is really starved for capital," he says. "What drew me into this was I was one of the few entrepreneurs that lived here that knew the ropes in terms of tapping into East and West Coast capital structures and could make that connection for them."

The company has three core technologies currently being tested with some success, but the most promising is called WP1066, named for researcher Waldemar Priebe, "a rock star" in his native Poland, according to Klemp, who works at MD Anderson. Though Priebe came to the U.S. in the 1980s, he is still an adjunct professor at the University of Warsaw and conducts some of his trials in Poland because it's easier to get grant money there.

WP1066 uses propolis, a compound of beeswax, sap and saliva that bees produce to seal small areas of their hives, as a base. The molecular compound that Priebe discovered affects STAT3 (signal transducer and activator of transcription), a transcription factor that encourages tumor development. In short, the active compound in WP1066 both downregulates the STAT3, a long-time Holy Grail in the cancer research world, and directly attacking the tumor, but also quieting T Cells, which allows the body's own immune system to fight the cancer itself. Essentially, it works both as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

WP1066 is demonstrating drug-like properties in trials at MD Anderson on glioblastoma, the aggressive brain cancer that recently took the life of the hospital's former president, John Mendelsohn, as well as John McCain and Beau Biden. It is also being tested against pancreatic cancer, one of the most virulent killers cancer doctors combat.

Priebe also created Annamycin, named for his oldest daughter, a first-line chemotherapy drug that fights Acute Myeloid Leukemia without the cardiotoxicity that can damage patients' hearts even as they beat their cancer.

WP1122 uses yet another mechanism to fight cancer.

"Most people don't know that morphine is essentially a modified version of heroin," Klemp explains.

The difference between the poppy-based drugs? Heroin can cross the blood-brain barrier. It's described as the dicetyl ester of morphine. WP1122 is the dicetyl ester of 2DG (2-Deoxyglucose), a glycolysis inhibitor, which works by overfilling tumor cells with fake glucose so that they can't consume the real glucose that makes them grow.

"The theory is, we could feed you so full of junk food that eventually you'd starve to death," Klemp elucidates. It can cross the blood-brain barrier and is metabolized slowly, meaning that it can be made into a drug in a way that 2DG cannot.

What's impressive about Moleculin is its diversity of drugs. Most companies have one drug that gets all or most of the attention. Moleculin has strong hopes for all three currently in trials.

"It's essentially multiple shots on the goal," says executive vice president and CFO Jonathan Foster.

Moleculin has 13 total employees, five of whom are based in Houston. An office in the Memorial Park area serves as a landing pad for employees and collaborators from around the world to get their work done when in Space City. The virtual office set-up works for the company because experts can stay in their home cities to get their work done. And that work is on its way to saving scores of lives.