High blood pressure is a significant societal health problem all over the world. Kona Medical is trying to address the huge hypertension population with a noninvasive ultrasound device that might eliminate the need to take daily blood pressure medication. In a somewhat unorthodox move, the company is focusing initially on China.
Last year, Medtronic acquired Ardian, another startup that is focused on the same clinical condition. Ardian, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, was purchased for $800 million.
The statistics for hypertension are stunning. 30% of US adults have hypertension (high blood pressure). Another 30% of Americans are pre-hypertensive. Less than half of those people with hypertension have their condition under control. A fifth don’t know they have it. The annual price tag for direct medical expenses related to high blood pressure is $131 billion. This is driven in part by the 55 million doctor visits that are prompted by high blood pressure. High blood pressure is present in most first heart attacks (69%), first strokes (77%), and in people with congestive heart failure (74%). High blood pressure was listed as a primary or contributing cause of death for about 348,000 Americans in 2008.
Recent medical research has shown that ablation (destruction) of the nerves around the renal arteries can reduce blood pressure in patients with hypertension. A number of medical device companies are racing to commercialize products based on their proprietary technologies in order to take a lead in this evolving market.
Ardian uses radio frequency ablation delivered via catheter to the area of the renal arteries. Kona is using focused external ultrasound to deliver the therapeutic energy – they are calling it “surround sound.” In a superficial assessment, it appears that Kona has the edge since their technology is completely noninvasive while the Ardian technology could at best be described as minimally invasive.
Of course, what should really matter is which technology works best with the fewest side effect, not how the therapy is delivered. The “best” technology doesn’t always prevail in the medical device industry, however. Sometimes first to market gets and keeps the largest share while in other situations the best marketing prevails.
Kona has previously raised $40 million in venture capital earlier this year and in 2012.
Kona’s latest announcement, to use a new investment of $10 million to launch their product in China, is somewhat confusing. Yes, there are vast numbers of people in China and untold numbers with hypertension. Most, however, probably do not have the type of health insurance that would pay for a high tech solution. In its press release, the company said that their therapy has the promise of being delivered in an outpatient setting. Outpatient hypertension therapy clinics – now that’s a disruptive concept!
China is not a traditional launch market for new medical devices. The company says that the latest investment, from a fund with deep ties to China, will be used exclusively to address the many clinical, regulatory, and intellectual property issues unique to China as a medical device market for Kona’s new therapy.
It will be interesting to see if Kona can successfully launch their product into the Chinese market while simultaneously commercializing for the traditional U.S. or E.U. markets without losing focus or depleting key resources.
Takeaways: Most companies commercializing novel medical devices pick a launch market and stick with it. There are any number of reasons to launch in the U.S. first. Other companies pick the European Union countries and some look to large, less regulated countries in South America.
While many development and commercialization tasks are the same no matter which initial market is selected, there are important differences. It’s usually best to choose the first, second, and perhaps third initial markets so that the launch components are not uniquely different and the company can use scarce resources for other commercialization tasks.