treating addiction

Houston med-tech companies partner on wearable device for opioid withdrawal

A new medical device created in Houston is revolutionizing opioid withdrawal treatment. Photo via sparkbiomedical.com

Houston-based Spark Biomedical has created a revolutionary wearable device that provides unprecedented levels of opioid withdrawal relief.

The device known as the Sparrow Therapy System is worn over the ear for five to seven days and sends mild electrical signals to trigger cranial nerves that sit near the skin's surface.

Once activated, the nerves release endorphins that the body has stopped producing on its own during opioid use. The endorphins satisfy the opioid receptors and in turn reduce or prevent the intense symptoms that often come along with opioid withdrawal. According to Spark BioMed CEO Daniel Powell, the technology also helps patients better control their "flight or fight mechanisms," allowing them to make clearer, more logical decisions as they come off of the drug.

"If you ask 100 people who've gone through opioid withdrawal, I would bet 99 of them will tell you they thought they were going to die," Powell says. "Giving them the ability to manage that is huge. It's the first step towards addiction recovery. It's not solving the addiction, but it is an absolute barrier to move forward."

The product was approved by the FDA in January of 2020, after clinical trials showed that the Sparrow could meaningfully reduce withdrawal symptoms in the first hour of use. According to Powell, roughly a third of patients in the trial were completely out of withdrawal and patients' Clinical Opioid Withdrawal Scales scores reduced by more than 53 percent across the board.

Spark, which won Venture Houston's inaugural pitch competition earlier this year, partnered with Houston-based Velentium (which also happened to grow 93 percent last year after partnering with General Motors on Project V) to bring the product from concept to commercial physician prescribed product. "We needed a more sophisticated design house to help us finish it," Powell says.

The up-and-comers were connected through one of Spark's investors. Powell, in a previous career, had also sold a neurostimulator that Velentium CTO Randy Armstrong had invented.

"You're seeing more and more Houston centric medical innovation than we've ever seen before," says Velentium CEO Dan Purvis. "And the cool thing about that is there ends up being a camaraderie amongst entrepreneurs, medical researchers and scientists."

And though the release of Sparrow marks a huge milestone, neither Spark of Velentium are stopping there. Moving forward, Spark aims to conduct a massive study on how a similar technology, dubbed the Roo, can aid infants born to opioid-dependent mothers wean from the drug.

The company also aims to create a next generation Sparrow with the help of Velentium, and will look at long-term uses of the product. Powell says that Spark will look to determine if the product can prevent relapses and help to cure addiction when worn daily or regularly.

"Our big, crazy, ambitious goal is can we actually help people recover from addiction," Powell says. "We're really not addressing psychology, that's going to be in cognitive behavioral therapy. But if we can remove the neurological results of drug use, we think we can make at least start to stack the deck in the favor of the patient versus having the deck stacked completely against them all the time."

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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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