Kratos Builds Path Towards Improving Patient Outcomes
Tyree Williams, founder of Kratos Technology Inc., a maker of a novel quick-drying cement compound for stabilizing fractured vertebrae, still checks his national I-Corps notes for insights. With regional and national I-Corps in his rear-view mirror, along with securing $25K from an Mt. Sinai Innovation Partners Pitch Challenge, Williams continues to rely on the skills and tools he developed from his I-Corps training to further grow his company.
Williams, a Columbus, OH native who later moved to Nashville, TN, received his Bachelor’s in physics from Fisk University, an HBCU in Nashville, while also taking engineering courses at nearby Vanderbilt University. During that time, he pursued several internships at medical institutions with a focus on translational medicine, instilling a desire to do work that would improve lives. After graduating, he began working towards a PhD in biomedical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).
“I realized that I wanted to do something that would have impact in the near term,” said Williams. “My original work in stem cell research presented too long an arc for me. I wanted to get back to translational research.”
Williams connected with the director of Sinai BioDesign, an incubator for medical design research based at Mt. Sinai in New York City, to see if his skill set would align with their goals. While still an RPI graduate student, he soon moved to New York City. Williams spent his first six months shadowing three leading spine and neurosurgeons, Drs. Reade De Leacy, Jeremy Steinberger, and Tanvir Choudhri. He focused on the challenges presented by the procedures they performed.
“I enjoy being around clinicians, seeing their day-to-day activities, and figuring out how I can potentially alleviate their challenges to improve how they can treat patients,” Williams said.
These doctors frequently performed vertebral augmentation, where bone cement is injected into a collapsed or fractured vertebrae while the patient is under a kind of real-time X-ray, called a fluoroscope. One challenge he noted was the doctors’ frustration with waiting around for bone cement to harden—with no control over how fast it cured. “The challenge associated with this procedure is exposing everyone to radiation, while also limiting the surgeons’ autonomy and impeding their performance,” said Williams. “I wanted to explore new techniques to address this challenge, and that was the basis for my first, regional I-Corps.”
Speaking to doctors in Boston and New York, as well as FDA specialists in this area, Williams further refined his concept and identified what tests he would need to run to prove the safety of a faster-drying bone cement.
“Control polymers have been used in dentistry, but not for the spine,” said Williams. “Our priorities were safety and not having to modify the surgical approach in any way.
Everything we use is already in use commercially; that was a key criterion, not introducing new substances into the body.”
“What I consistently found was that doctors always feel like they are on the clock; as soon as they mix the cement, the clock starts,” added Williams. “One doctor told me that waiting on the cement was like watching paint dry! Through I-Corps, I verified that if we alleviate that problem, we can make the whole process more favorable for patients.”
Through regional I-Corps, Williams was able to better understand the end user and what they might prioritize. “Regional taught me that the coolest engineering solution may not be clinically applicable,” Williams said.
Most of Williams’ customer discovery came from his experience at national I-Corps, where he rang up an additional 105 interviews. Williams believes that the experience he had at National enabled him to have a bigger interview pool and get the most diverse opinions and insights.
Williams described the big pivot he made between participating in regional and national I-Corps. “My original idea was to decrease adjacent fractures and bone leakage,” Williams said. “After national I-Corps, I learned that it would be hard to quantify those challenges, but that the main issue for surgeons was time and greater control over the cement material to enable a better experience and outcome for both doctor and patient.”
Williams noted that one of the biggest challenges, outside of getting time from surgeons and other key targets during customer discovery, was to make a testing plan that would truly validate the key concepts we needed to address. “To create the testing plan, I had to take a step back and do some critical thinking. Both the regional and national I-Corps sessions taught me to balance the engineering with the entrepreneurship,” Williams added.
Williams has applied for an STTR grant and anticipates having to reapply. “We’ve gotten feedback and we are doing testing now to address that feedback,” he said. “But that’s been useful—we’re using these new learnings to apply for a patent.”
Williams is not alone in his endeavor; along with the three doctors from Mt. Sinai that he initially shadowed, who serve as advisors, Kratos has an advisory board as well. But day to day, Williams is doing the heavy lifting.
“This was always my goal—to take my thesis and commercialize it,” added Williams, who expects to graduate from his PhD program in May 2024. “I feel like I’ve found my stride. I love how I can leverage engineering and physics to improve lives.”