Growing up, many of us watched movies or cartoons showing people becoming miniaturized and going inside the human body. Though we certainly can’t shrink people down to the size of a blood cell, new technologies are allowing medical professionals to better explore the insides of living people, while creating less patient discomfort.
Torrey Smith is the Founder and CEO of Endiatx, a Silicon Valley Founder Institute portfolio company developing a pill-sized robot that will explore and perform work inside the body. Endiatx is planning to disrupt the common, but often uncomfortably invasive, colonoscopy procedure—replacing it with a non-invasive process that does not require sedation.
It sounds like something straight out of a science fiction movie. You swallow a pill, a doctor grabs his tablet or iPad, and then up pops a screen showing you first-hand video of your insides. This kind of technology has existed in some capacity before, but what Smith along with Co-Founders Dan Moyer and James Erd are developing goes several steps further. CEO Torrey Smith explains,
Endiatx pill robots feature a novel propulsion system enabling doctors to have real-time remote access to the entire GI tract.
The Diagnostic Robot will allow a doctor to actually control it, rather than the sensor just passively moving through the GI tract.
Endiatx is designed to provide unprecedented access in helping doctors to diagnose illnesses within the gastrointestinal tract—the swallowable device can traverse and navigate the entire GI tract within 30 to 45 minutes, yields high fidelity video, be controlled through a commodity tablet with antenna, and does not require the patient to wear a specialized belt. We’ll spare you the details of the current alternative colonoscopy procedure, but needless to say, this alternative procedure is relatively invasive, uncomfortable, and the patient needs sedation. According to Smith,
The only thing we share in common with a standard colonoscopy is the clear liquid bowel prep where we rinse out a patient's insides to make it easy to move around and see stuff. From there, we are totally sedation-free and non-invasive.
Instead of getting knocked out and violated, our patients will get to swallow a Pill Diagnostic Robot and watch in real-time as their doctor quickly navigates through their GI Tract. It should come across as a fun, futuristic experience, and their stay in the hospital or outpatient clinic should be much faster and cheaper.
In addition to the Pill Diagnostic Robot, Endiatx plans to take their technology even further through solutions that can also assist doctors in treating the issues they identify. Smith explains,
Our Pill Surgeon will trail the Pill Diagnostic by about 18 months, and that will represent a truly huge leap forward as we add surgical intervention to our platform!
When asked what future success will look like for the Endiatx team, Smith says that it comes down to getting their initial robot moving around in patients. To get there, they must complete the development of their proprietary propulsion systems, working within the regulatory framework of the medical device industry, and eventually pass FDA trials. This will lead Endiatx into entering the $810 million endoscopy market, which contributes towards the $40 billion global gastrointestinal device market.
The initial motivations and concept behind Endiatx were each fed by Smith’s interests in science fiction. Smith says he knew that technologists would eventually develop the kinds of intra-alimentary sensors that Endiatx is working on now, ones that would assist with diagnosing as well as treating illnesses. However, through his experience as a medical device designer, he saw that the industry was typically risk-averse.
It seemed like everyone was searching for low-hanging fruit, and larger ideas tended to stall out in favor of a quick buck. When Given Imaging (makers of PillCam) sold to Covidien in 2014 for $860M, it really lit a fire inside me. That was a bigger sale than I had personally been involved in, and the device was so simple: a camera on a pill. I started dreaming about making moving versions of these pills, controlled by a doctor almost like a videogame. It wasn't until I saw Founder Institute that I finally came in for a practice pitch, and the rest is history.
Unlike science fiction visions from our past, we do happen to live in a world where people have minimal shame and are happy to share their first-hand experiences with colonoscopies. With YouTube videos titles including descriptors like Never Again, a lot of very unhappy or frowny faces, and even more poop emojis, it can be safely surmised that the colonoscopy experience is not a pleasant one. The Diagnostic Pill Robot is designed to remove much, if not all, of the discomfort from this equation.
I can't wait to either tell a patient that they have a clean bill of health, or that thanks to our technology, we have found a problem years earlier than they might otherwise have known about. We want to give oncologists a 10-year head start in treating illnesses like Colon and Pancreatic Cancer, and we think we can do this by bringing GI Diagnostic imaging into the 21st century.
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