Hi! It’s me, Spiffy the interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with the latest scoop on entrepreneurs making a difference in health and well-being for all of us around the world! Today’s rockstar is Nicole Black, co-founder and CEO of Beacon Bio, a company that is currently developing solutions for perforated eardrum injuries! Are you ready to be inspired?
Spiffy: Welcome, Nicole! Let’s jump right in. Can you tell me what challenges you’re addressing?
Nicole: Thanks for having me, Spiffy! Did you know that each year, millions of people across the world suffer perforated eardrum injuries? Eardrum perforations frequently occur due to ear infections, trauma, and head injuries, and they can lead to ear pain, drainage, and hearing loss. A three-hour surgical procedure to correct eardrum perforation, known as tympanoplasty, is performed by an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) surgeon under general anesthesia. Unfortunately, current graft materials do not have the same circular and radial structure as the normal eardrum, leading to poor healing and hearing outcomes.
Spiffy: I didn’t realize this was such a problem. What motivated you to focus your attention on healing these types of eardrum injuries?
Nicole: The most common injury following the Boston Marathon Bombings was eardrum perforation, and co-founder Dr. Aaron Remenschneider treated many of the patients from this event at Mass Eye and Ear hospital. I first became connected to him over six years ago, when I was starting my Ph.D. in Professor Jennifer Lewis’s lab at Harvard. We learned about the poor healing and hearing outcomes that Dr. Remenschneider observed in tympanoplasty patients. As I have scar tissue in my eardrum following tympanostomy tubes as a child, I was further motivated to solve challenges with current eardrum grafts.
Spiffy: I would be motivated too! Can you talk about how your organization is working to create a more equitable world?
Nicole: Unfortunately, only about one out of nine patients with perforated eardrums elect to undergo current tympanoplasty procedures due to concerns about general anesthesia and the invasiveness of the procedure. We have innovated a novel device, PhonoGraft, made from a patented design and patent-pending material. Our design could allow PhonoGraft to be placed through the ear canal in an awake patient. This could also open the door for tympanoplasty to reach patient populations that otherwise do not have access to a trained ENT surgeon and sterile operating rooms.
Nicole Black, Ph.D. with a Bioplotter 3D Printer (EnvisionTEC), showing the 3D printed design of PhonoGraft. (Photo Credit: Zack Chou, Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard)
Spiffy: Have you achieved any milestones lately? What impact do you see it making?
Nicole: Recently, we have tested PhonoGraft in animal models for chronic eardrum perforations to see how it performed against the current standard of care materials. We determined that PhonoGraft has higher rates of healing compared to current materials. The regenerative nature of PhonoGraft allows it to incorporate well into native tissue, which could ultimately reduce revision surgeries. Additionally, the circular and radial structure of PhonoGraft mimics that of the normal eardrum. We have found that hearing is returned closer to baseline levels than with current materials.
Spiffy: Wow, that’s amazing, Nicole! I’m always asking entrepreneurs to share about experiences with failure. When have you faced failure and what did you learn from it?
Nicole: I spent many years during my Ph.D. studies, designing the ideal material for PhonoGraft. It proved very challenging to optimize for many aspects at the same time— flexibility, degradation, biocompatibility, 3D printability, and more. Eventually, after dozens of iterations, we landed on a novel material formation that allowed us to achieve all these goals. I learned that repeated failure in science only means that you are trying to do something that no one else has done before. Often, failure leads to new innovations and ways of thinking to surmount these obstacles.
Spiffy: I’m curious—have you learned something inspirational from someone recently?
Nicole: I recently learned from a mentor of mine that you are your own best ally. No one is going to know about your work or about all the amazing things you are doing unless you advocate for yourself and tell the world about your work. Knowing how to communicate what you are doing to broad audiences is the clearest way to make an impact on the world. You need to believe in yourself and your own ideas before other people will—optimism is contagious!
Spiffy: I agree and I’m feeling optimistic just listening to your experience! Before we sign off, Nicole, is there anything else you would like to tell our audience?
Nicole: Yes, Spiffy! Our design of PhonoGraft was based around the circular and radial structure of fibers in the normal human eardrum. The field of mimicking designs from nature is called “biomimicry.” We can look to nature and in the case of medical advancements, the body’s original design, when looking to treat problems in new ways. Since the circular and radial fibers present in your own eardrum help to allow sound conduction across both low and high frequencies, using biomimicry in the design of PhonoGraft helped us to improve hearing outcomes from eardrum repair procedures.
Spiffy: I hope your story—and work—will inspire kids out there to mimic your passion for creating innovations for other pressing problems! Thanks so much for talking to me, Nicole. It’s been an honor.
Nicole Black, Ph.D., has a passion for biomaterials and innovative medical devices. During her doctoral studies, Nicole worked on developing an improved graft for eardrum repair procedures. Currently, Nicole is spinning out a new venture, Beacon Bio, from the Wyss Institute at Harvard University and Mass Eye and Ear hospital. (Nominated by Harvard Innovation Labs)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s stories of founders building a more equitable world at www.ladderworks.co/blogs/spiffys-blog