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Ex-VC John Brooks tries to help UMass spin-out raise funds

Posted by Scott Kirsner  April 28, 2010 07:08 PM

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Though he isn't mentioned on the start-up's sparse Web site, Prism VentureWorks co-founder John Brooks tells me that he recently took the reins at Reflectence Medical, a Marlborough-based company developing a non-invasive monitoring device for critically ill patients.

Founder Babs Soller, an anesthesiology prof at UMass Medical School, "has done a great job over the years getting research funding from the military and NASA," Brooks says. "I'm helping to take a great idea and get it approved and commercialized." Brooks says he met Soller last year. (It has been about two years since Brooks was an active investor at Prism, where Woody Benson now runs the show.)

The company's technology is a iPhone-sized sensor that can be affixed to the skin on the upper arm, and connected to a monitor. "It measures how much light is going through the skin, and how much is reflected back by the microcirculatory system," Brooks explains. "It lets you determine if the muscles and tissues and the microcirculatory system are using oxygen," as well as the levels of pH and hematocrit in the blood. Brooks says the technology isn't intended to replace pulse oximetry (those devices that clip onto your fingertip and measure the oxygen saturation in your blood), but to complement it. "In our case, we're determining whether the oxygen is being used in the microcapillary system, which gives you the ability to determine early that there may be internal bleeding."

One reason for the military's interest in the technology, Brooks says, is that it can provide better information about the true status of a wounded soldier. Early detection can help prevent a soldier from going into shock, for instance, when he is being transported from the battlefield to a medical center.

Fundraising is "part of my objective," says Brooks, who in addition to his work as an investor at Prism also served as a co-founder of three companies, including Bedford-based Insulet Corp., now publicly-traded. "For the last 18 months, the VC environment has been tough, and patient monitoring is an area that's a little bit off their radar screen." Some additional funding could come from the military, and Reflectence applied for a $500,000 matching grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, but hasn't yet heard back.

Timing can be a funny thing for entrepreneurs hoping to snare a VC's interest, Brooks has learned. "Some investors want to go really early, and some want the company to have gotten through the FDA regulatory process before they invest." Reflectence falls somewhere in the middle. And there's always the question of "how you give investors comfort that the uptake and utilization of a new technology is going to happen," he says.

Brooks says he hasn't given up on raising VC money, but he's trying to develop a strategy that could help the company win regulatory approval in Europe or the U.S. without it. With a first FDA submission this fall or winter, "then we can start providing evaluation units to the military, and the hope is that at that stage, we'll become more attractive to venture investors and strategic investors," Brooks says.

Brooks says the CEO role at Reflectence isn't a full-time thing right now; he is also active with MassMedic's MedTech IGNITE mentoring program and is a senior advisor to Johnston Blakely & Co., a Boston-based investment bank.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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