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Habib Frost: “I was compelled to find a better way”

Habib Frost

Habib Frost, MD, could not get over the helplessness he felt as a young emergency medicine intern in Denmark seeing two young people die in the same day from cardiac arrest, despite having access to skilled providers and the latest technology.

“I knew that I wanted to do something about this, but I did not know what I wanted to do,” Frost said, thinking back to the day in April 2013 when his team was unable to save a woman in her 30s and a young girl. “I did not have the answers starting out. I was compelled to find a better way.”

Frost, Denmark’s youngest medical doctor at age 23, began to look into creating a portable device that would distribute blood more quickly during a cardiac arrest to the two organs that need it most, the heart and the brain. His company, Neurescue, is developing a small, computer-controlled balloon catheter that can be inserted into the femoral artery in the leg of a person in cardiac arrest or hemorrhage to block the aorta and redistribute the blood flow generated by chest compressions to the heart and brain.

“The increase in blood supply to the heart ensures that many more hearts can be resuscitated,” explained Frost, founder and CEO of Neurescue. “The increased blood supply to the brain protects against brain damage, allowing for more time to treat the underlying cause of the cardiac arrest. This approach can greatly improve the current survival rate.”

The most common cause of a heart attack is an abnormal heart rhythm, called ventricular fibrillation, which occurs when the lower chambers of the heart “shiver” so erratically that blood stops pumping completely, according to Frost.

The Neurescue catheter operates with a mechanism that senses the pressure in the tip and the pressure inside the balloon. By measuring these data points, the software can use the pressure waveform to determine whether the catheter is inside an artery, a vein or outside a blood vessel, and when the controller starts filling the balloon slowly, whether the catheter is inside the aorta or one of its side branches. “This allows for the first safe, validated use of a balloon catheter without advanced imaging such as an X-ray,” Frost added.

I called up strangers for advice

Frost started Neurescue in his last semester of medical school and was able to raise the first round of funding. This year he closed the second round of funding, raising $4 million U.S.

Launching a business was new to Frost, so he reached out to anyone or anything that might be helpful. “I started out borrowing all the books I could; then I got access to databases and called up strangers for advice and information to an extent I never did before, not knowing that my odds [for success] as an individual student with no prior experience in entrepreneurship or business were small.”

But not pursuing a traditional product-development approach worked out well for Frost’s invention, perhaps because he lacked business experience and the device involved so many disciplines. “Not following a well-known path turned out to be a strength,” Frost continued.

“Together with consultant mechanical engineers and patent agents, I was able to develop and patent the solutions that have been able to solve the main problem in the field, and assemble an experienced team.”

Neurescue plans to pilot the device in certain European hospitals in about a year. “The team is finalizing every medical-grade component and performing the safety tests to achieve a regulatory approval for a device of this nature,” Frost said. “We are committed to building the safest product that we can, especially one with such potential to curb leading killers such as cardiac arrest and critical bleeding.”

Sensor- and computing driven therapies

Neurescue’s device is part of a trend in the life sciences Frost said he is seeing in which “intelligent medical devices are entering domains that were previously reserved for drugs or highly trained experts. As the price of sensors and computer power drops drastically, it will allow for increased intelligence in equipment around us, including treatments such as Neurescue, or neuromodulation implants for the treatment of pain. This could lead to an explosion in sensor-and computing-driven healthcare therapies that are used for disease categories where the industry wouldn’t normally think devices was the answer.”

The Nordic countries are ready for this trend, he added. “The Nordics are a life sciences stronghold. When internationally acclaimed companies like Novo Nordisk, Coloplast and Lundbeck have their base in Denmark, they draw talent and subsequently smaller companies are created around them.”

Decreases in the cost of developing biotechnology also are benefiting Nordic companies. “From 2012 to today, the cost of creating changes in a large piece of DNA has fallen by 99 percent, thanks to the discovery of a tool called CRISPR, borrowed from the bacteria world,” Frost noted.  “This is already a game changer, and I’m hoping the Nordics will become a leader in this field.”

Forbes’ 30 under 30

Personal experience also motivated Frost to pursue a career in medicine. Frost’s father developed cancer for the first time when he was 11. “I knew that I wanted to do something that contributed to the life sciences,” he said. Growing up in Copenhagen, Frost also was influenced in other ways by his family, who are very interested in computers and technology. He broadened his skills after graduating from medical school by getting certified as a trauma team leader by the American College of Surgeons and attending Singularity University’s 10-week flagship at NASA Ames in Silicon Valley. This year Frost was named one of Forbes magazine’s 30 under 30 in the area of technology.

“My long-term goal is to lead teams that save the greatest number of quality life years,” he added. “So that everyone can have the right to a healthy life, free from sudden or premature death.”

Frost advises other young life sciences’ entrepreneurs to not be afraid to call on experts in other disciplines when pursuing their research and to always be inquisitive – and work with people with the same convictions. “You need to always maintain critical thinking and question assumptions,” he said. “Your team should always be encouraged to question dogmatic thinking, even when coming from you. Rational arguments should drive your process, not command and rank. We apply that every day. You do not get any significant change by staying in your comfort zone.”