Up & Running with Angie Conley, CEO of AbiliTech

March 29  

Angie Conley is Founder and CEO of AbiliTech Medical. AbiliTech is developing a prosthosis to help patients with muscle weakness or injury to use their arms so they may live independently. Their first device will launch in 2020 and clinical studies will begin at the University of Minnesota and Gillette Children’s hospital.

In 2016, AbiliTech Medical, Inc. was founded by a group of deeply committed and knowledgeable individuals experienced with upper-limb impairments. Every day we strive to create and build solutions that restore function and independence to those affected by neuromuscular conditions.

The AbiliTech Assist will be the first in-home device on the market that will provide functional assistance and support to both the elbow and shoulder. This device has the potential to improve the lives of approximately 75,000 people in the United States affected by muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis.

The AbiliTech Assist allows patients to:

  • Perform independent activities of daily living
  • Engage within their communities
  • Live independently

What motivated you to start AbiliTech?

My inspiration for AbiliTech traces back to my previous role as executive director at Magic Arms, a nonprofit that created devices to help children affected by arthrogryposis, an orphan medical condition, use their arms. I still remember the look of delight on one child’s face as he moved his arm, on his own, for the very first time; his parents were similarly awestruck. It was such a moving experience, and one that introduced me to the problem that thousands of Americans live with on a daily basis: They have arms, but they are too weak to use for functional tasks required to live independently.

During my tenure at Magic Arms, I received so many emails and voicemails asking if our device could help them or someone they love who have multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, ALS, or a spinal cord injury. But we were focused on pediatric orphan conditions and had a very limited budget; we simply didn’t have the resources to develop a new technology to help adults, or that could support the needs to scale to be a medical device company.  

Eventually, I realized that my background in medtech as a senior product manager at Medtronic, coupled with my experience at Magic Arms, could be brought together to start a new company focused on transforming lives: Abilitech Medical.

What problem are you solving for with the company?

By solving this overlooked healthcare challenge, we are literally changing lives. Our device helps people feed themselves, brush their teeth, and perform many independent tasks.

In 2016, we raised $2.3 million to form a first-class team focused on solving the problem of restoring basic functional abilities to people with severely limited upper-limb strength. We have been called “the wheelchair for the arms” by more than one patient. It’s a market we estimate at more than $2 billion. To date, we have $6.5M committed, and are seeking an additional $2.5M to close our $9M initial raise. These funds will help allow us to obtain FDA clearance, complete our clinical study, and provide 12 months of support for commercial expansion.

Approximately 75,000 patients with muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and central cord syndrome — a type of spinal cord injury, will benefit from our device in the U.S. alone. If you are disabled in your lower body, you have a wheelchair for mobility; if you lose a limb, you can opt for a prosthesis. But if you have a non-functioning arm, there are no good options. Many in this situation depend on their families; others, unfortunately, are forced into nursing homes so that they can be helped to perform simple daily tasks such as eating, drinking, and brushing their teeth — things most of us simply take for granted. Our mission is to restore independence for people who have neuromuscular weakness with our arm orthosis.

What is the definition of value in healthcare today and what should it be? Does that make your work harder or easier?

The core tenets of value-based healthcare (VBHC) revolve around the idea of aligning all stakeholders in a system with the goal of delivering value to patients. Our device has a clear value to our patients, their families, clinicians, and payers. The benefits are very tangible; within five minutes of fitting a patient, we can measure patient-specific outcomes. We have developed a digital health strategy that will help measure the value to the payer community; our investment in this will increase with more money and time and play a critical role in the future.

Why is a presence in Minnesota, known as the Medical Alley, critical to your company?

Minnesota has a terrific medical device community and a rich ecosystem that helps foster innovation and growth. As a result of its world-class medtech and healthcare companies, the MANOVA Global Health Summit, and its vibrant healthtech startup community, there is no better place to start a new medtech company than Minnesota.

The Medical Alley Association has been a great resource to AbiliTech. We have benefitted from educational sessions on clinical studies, reimbursement strategies, and regulatory challenges, as well as the ecosystem that MAA has created to support startups and large medical device companies. We have also benefitted from its work lobbying to reduce the medical device tax and to restore the Angel Tax Credit, a great economic stimulus to Minnesota. AbiliTech secured our first $1M of funding through this credit that now supports four full-time employees and over 20 contractors.

What’s the biggest “blind spot” in healthcare today? 

Reimbursement should be considered as important as product development for new startups, but it is often misunderstood, impacting both access to, and affordability of, new devices and the overall financial health of a company. Understanding how your product fits into the current landscape, and working to define meaningful clinical endpoints, is essential to success. While improving quality of life may be the most important benefit of our device, it is equally important to consider how new technology adds value and reduces cost.

Understanding the healthcare economic impact of technology is imperative to anyone looking to bring a new product or service to market. My hope is that more payers are willing to work with companies to develop technology to reduce costs to everyone.  

What is the one thing, other than time or money, you wish you had more of?

One of the downsides of being in Minnesota is that we often get overlooked by the major coastal media. I wish that both mainstream and trade media would pay more attention to the amazing things that are happening here in the medtech and healthcare industries, but I think that is changing. Big healthcare events like Medical Alley’s MANOVA Summit are critical to establishing our brand as the global epicenter of health care. And, although Abilitech is still small, we have been extremely fortunate to have already garnered some national media attention. In January we were pleased to have been named, along with several other Minnesota companies, to the Observer’s Twenty Hottest Companies in ‘Flyover Tech’ at JP Morgan. I hope this is a sign of more national media attention being focused on Minnesota.

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