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From Concept to Exit: Words of Wisdom from a Co-Inventor and from a UMB Tech Transfer Leader

Monday, June 15, 2020


In early May, Abiomed, best known as the manufacturer of the Impella, a percutaneous heart pump, acquired University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) start-up Breethe for its innovative ECMO technology, which is designed to help patients with respiratory failure and disease. We sat down with Jon Wu, the engineer and co-inventor of Breethe’s novel technology, and with Phil Robilotto, UMB Associate Vice President of the Office of Technology Transfer, to learn more about Breethe and the critical role that UM Ventures played in paving the way for the company’s success. UM Ventures has continued to help University entrepreneurs from the early stages of business formation on the path to commercialization and/or through to a successful exit.

Jon Wu

When did you first meet Dr. Bartley Griffith, Breethe’s founder and a well-known UM School of Medicine (UMSOM) professor in pulmonary surgery, and how did the two of you start working together?

Long story short, we have been working together for more than 23 years. After I got my PhD in 1996, I went to work at the University of Pittsburgh where Dr. Griffith was the division chief of cardiac surgery. I was just a fresh young PhD.

Dr. Griffith moved to Maryland in 2001 to become the Chief of Cardiac Surgery and wanted to start a new program. In 2002 he asked me if I wanted to come be a part of it. I saw it as a good opportunity and a fresh start, so I packed up my laboratory and made the transition. In 2003 we started working together in Maryland and have worked very closely ever since.

How long were you working on this technology before the company was formed? What was the inspiration behind it?

We started the company in 2014. We had both previously worked with big companies, but we talked about it and decided to take ownership and start a company on our own. We had the inspiration to push the technology forward.

It’s Dr. Griffith’s dream, he was a surgeon trying to save people’s lives and he placed the benefit to the patient at the heart of our work. We had been developing a left ventricular assistive device and started to see this parallel path with lung disease. I’m the engineer, he’s the surgeon. He gave me the inspiration by communicating the needs and limitations of current technology, the problems that he was facing at the hospital. 

What about your background/experience was key to developing the technology?

Initially, the technology was a drawing on a piece of paper, then it developed into diagrams. We did a lot of back and forth and talked about what was good, what needed to change. I came out of engineering and the university side, so I was able to translate the needs he communicated into something tangible. I would go back to him and we would go back and forth and makes changes. It was a very close interaction.

In order to develop the mechanics and a computer prototype, we had to imagine how the blood cells came into the device, the oxygen transfer, how the carbon dioxide is removed from the device, how the blood returns to the patient. Understanding all of this takes engineering design, virtual prototyping, and computer modelling. Then we finally discussed how to pump the blood, how it was returned to the patient and the general design. Once we were comfortable, we built the actual prototype and began testing in the laboratory and running actual experiments.

Who were the important players in the UM system/your network that you were able to lean on for support throughout this process?

Having the University resources to protect the technology was very important. The University supported us, helped us file the patent application and disclosures to protect the intellectual property. Everyone in the technology transfer office was very helpful.

What kind of quality of life can a patient expect thanks to your technology?

In hospitals, most patients, like a COVID-19 patient today, are bed ridden. If their heart and lungs don’t function well, they can’t support themselves. So, they end up on ventilators which are essentially life support provided via a machine. Dr. Griffith came to me thinking we could change this – maybe we could develop a technology to allow patients to be ambulatory. If you can get out of the bed, you can eventually go home. This can change a patient’s prognosis and outcome.

Phil Robilotto

Tell me about your background and how you came to be a part of UM Ventures.

I’ve been with UM Ventures for almost 8.5 years now. My original background is in clinical medicine, but most of my career has been in pharma and biotech doing business development and strategy work. I was a part of the IPO team at Dupont Pharma, which was bought by Bristol Meyers Squibb, then I was with Celera in Rockville for 9 years.

I had done a lot of early pharma product development. When they were looking for someone at UMB to take over the tech transfer group, they wanted someone with deal and industry experience. My last company had just been sold, and while I’d never worked at a university before, it was really good timing.

What kind of support/programs does UM Ventures offer to start-ups? Do you feel this is unique in terms of tech transfer/entrepreneurial support functions at other public universities?

UM Ventures is an umbrella term for all of the commercialization arms inside both University of Maryland, Baltimore and College Park. It’s all the different funding, patent, and licensing groups working together to help commercialize technologies.

We have a whole network of experienced people that help us weigh the technology and make the right connections for us. It’s important to have an expanded reach outside of your everyday group that helps you reach other boards. We’ve got a great mix of people that have come out of the University with research backgrounds, which is important, having people that  know first-hand how the university research process works. And then the other half is made up of individuals that have come out of companies like Medtronic, Merck, Takeda or have been entrepreneurs themselves.

We have a good collection of people who can speak to clinicians and researchers about the next steps when they’re forming their own companies. We have an internal ventures team of four, including myself, that can support early-stage business formation, management, and development. We’ve all come out of pharma, banking or biotech and collectively have experience with finance, deal closing, raising capital — some have been members of senior management  of their own companies. Our team also includes a venture capitalist who comes in one day a month. Our experienced venture advisors consist of people like Darryl Carter, a pathologist out of Johns Hopkins University, who has started a company that raised almost $50M.

We were given the ability to build this group out and make direct seed investments in our companies. Many companies we have invested in told us how helpful it was that the University was betting on them. This seed investment helped them raise their initial round of funding that’s so hard to get. We try to help them survive the ‘valley of death’ you always hear about with start-ups by making connections to other angel and investor groups.

We’ve also found it’s really helpful to not only participate in a round, but to critique an initial business plan and provide as much input as we can in the beginning. That’s been a big focus of ours over the past few years.

What else is unique about the UM Venture approach?

At UM Ventures we also can manage our own companies, like Living Pharma, which lacked a management team, but we thought the technology was ready to go. We were able to start a company, incorporate it, and obtain funding with our ventures staff acting as preliminary management. In the case of Living Pharma, we were able to sell that company in about two years. We don’t do this often, as it requires a lot of time and effort, but we can and that’s pretty unique.

Finally, we’ve been fortunate to have been really successful with our investments. We’ve had four companies make a successful exit, including one that we were managing ourselves, and have had two of our Life Sciences IP Fund companies raise money successfully as well. We’ve been able to take some of our returns and turn that back into more direct help for some of our late-stage technologies. We have lab space now in the UM BioPark that our start-up companies can access. That’s another crucial piece, getting out of the University and into private lab space. This gives our companies an address and a working space that’s outside of the University. You need these pieces to apply for certain funding  and generally just be a company.

How has UM Ventures grown/advanced since you first joined the organization? What else has changed on campus at UMB or in the local ecosystem over the past few years that is helping support these promising early stage start-ups? 

When I first came on, UM Ventures was small. With additional funding from the State of Maryland and University System of Maryland, we’ve been able to expand our group and programs. We’ve gone from one person, to having a lot of great people and support. We’ve been fortunate to expand our resources pretty much every year since I’ve joined the university.

What kind of updates/plans do UMB and UM Ventures have in store to continue the support and growth of such incredible technologies?

Our latest project has been on the medical device front. We’re working with UMSOM to create a prototyping space inside the school. In the past, we’ve been stuck without a prototype and weren’t able to move on the technology as fast as we’d like. Someone comes up with a great idea, they draw it, but they can’t make the technology and there’s no money to build it.

Having the ability to work with a consultant to help them with a preliminary design on campus lets the inventor  file a patent quickly and apply for grants. This allows us to get a better sense of the technology faster. This new prototype program is going to come online in the next few months, which will be huge for us and will help a lot of our University inventor entrepreneurs.

To learn more about UM Ventures and the UMB Venture/Tech Transfer team, visit