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.

Tom Luby will run the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute. Courtesy of TMC

Tom Luby is in his first week as TMC Innovation Institute director, but it's safe to say he's hit the ground running. The former head of JLABS @ TMC is ready to continue the growth of the institute as well as open up new doors to funding and the rest of the world.

"My hope is that I can be helpful to all the parties here to continue to recruit and grow great startups here," Luby says. "Critically important, too, is additional funding and bringing that here. And all of us are working together toward the successful launch of TMC3."

Luby spoke with InnovationMap about what all he has on his plate and how he plans on making Houston known for its life sciences.

InnovationMap: After working for Johnson & Johnson in Boston, when did you relocate Houston?

Tom Luby: In 2017, when the opportunity came up that I can join the team in Houston and grow our JLABS at TMC, I jumped at the chance, moved my family down to Houston, and have loved it ever since. I've loved the life science startup community here — it's small, but growing quickly — and what it has to offer to our family in terms of the diversity, the friendliness of people, the ease of getting to know people, and, obviously, the weather. When you come from the northeast, the Houston weather is nice.

IM: Boston has this major life science innovation reputation. How do we get Houston to have that same reputation?

TL: It's not very fair to compare Boston and Houston. The Boston life science community is around 40 years in the making. There's been a focus on that for a very long time, and as a result of all the startup activity through the '80s, '90s and into the 2000s, Boston has seen an influx of almost all the major pharmaceutical and biotech companies. All of them have footprints there because they want to be close to the startups. So, that mix of startup activity being embedded with lots of corporates has created a bit of a yin and yang situation — corporates are looking to pull the products from the startups into their pipelines and the startups have pulled talent from the corporates.

Houston's in a different place than that. If you roll the Boston tape back lets say 20 years where Boston was focused on generating a place where life science startups could have a chance to develop and be successful, that's where Houston is. We've gotten to a point where we're starting to see a really good density. Over the past four years, over 250 companies have touched down here at some point. That type of density is needed then to do that second part and recruit some of the larger health care corporations.

IM: Coming from J&J, what expertise do you feel like you are bringing to the table?

TL: What I hope to be helpful with is providing an overall strategic vision around TMC Innovation that allows us to scale from what's already been done here. Like I just mentioned, there have been 250 companies that have been here at some point in the past four years. That doesn't happen without the great efforts of those that came before me — the TMCx team in particular, but the JLABS team, the Biodesign team down the hall have created a really interesting and rapidly growing place for health care startups.

IM: What are some of your goals for the TMC Innovation Institute?

TL: In the short term, what we're going to focus on making sure that when people show up to the TMC Innovation Institute, they have a great experience, whether they are engaged with TMCx, biodesign, JLABS, etc. So, it's important for us to be well coordinated, working cooperatively together, and everyone focused on being service first when it comes to the startups here. What we hope to create is an environment where startups come and have an experience that leaves them knowing that that experience gives them the best chance at being successful. In addition, as we begin to engage with partners who can provide venture capital and angel funds, it's the same thing, that they come here and have an efficient, coordinated experience.

So short term, it's pulling it all together so that when you think of TMC Innovation, you know what it is, how it's organized and what our mission is. We'll also be making additional efforts to engage with the member institutions in TMC, and that they understand that we're a resource to them.

IM: The current TMCx cohort is the most international to date. Between that and the new focus on TMC's biobridges, why is a global presence so important to TMC Innovation?

TL: Biobridges are about making sure that important geographies outside the US understand that the TMC is a place where their startups can come and be successful.

It's important for TMC to use the bridge to gain insight and access into specific areas that we feel that those countries have core strengths in. Australia and its clinical trials networks is a great example of that. Our companies having access to tap into that is incredibly important. We know that those bio bridges will benefit our startups and give the startups there a chance to have access to us.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.