Platinum Group Coatings founders (left to right) Jack Whalen, Artin Petrossians and Jim Weiland are on a mission to revolutionize the implantable electrode industry.
Imagine a recent patient, Joe, who has recently received a cardiac pacemaker to maintain his heart pumping regularly. His pacemaker is an industry standard: an electronic device housed in a titanium case, the pacemaker is surgically implanted inside his body, powered by an internal, custom battery and has wires, called leads, running from the titanium case to the heart’s muscular walls. The ends of those leads, the electrodes, are made of platinum.
Every three to five years, Joe’s pacemaker battery loses it charge storage capacity, meaning it loses charge more frequently, a potentially life-threatening situation. As a result he has to undergo surgery to replace his pacemaker, costing him and his insurance company $25,000 each time.
Now imagine replacing our patient Joe’s pacemaker with one that implements platinum-iridium electrodes and Joe can save himself a lot of time and money. Platinum-iridium electrodes have the potential to enable next generation implantable stimulator devices to outlast traditional electrodes by one or two years because the material is stronger, consumes less energy and thus is better at transmitting energy to the targeted tissue. In the span of 25 years, Joe will only have to replace his pacemaker five times as opposed to nine, a cost savings of $100,000 and reducing the risks of additional surgical procedures.
Enter Platinum Group Coatings, LLC. Last April the biomedical startup earned a top six finalist spot in USC Viterbi’s Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition for unveiling a product that could greatly improve and reduce the overall cost of health care and has potential applications in various other industries.
So what exactly is Platinum Group Coatings’ product? In short, it is a low cost, efficient process for applying a platinum-iridum alloy coating on implantable electrodes.
PGC electrodes on a microscopic scale
PGC has also been working on creating electrodes with a roughened surface. The roughened surface increases surface area for electricity to pass through while maintaining a small size that’s less traumatic to patients’ bodies. “People have tried roughened platinum and found that it’s not very mechanically strong. People have tried roughened iridium but they’ve found that it’s too brittle. So by alloying the two together we get the best of these two materials that’s superior overall,” explained founding member and Viterbi associate professor of biomedical engineering James Weiland.
PGC is the first to successfully develop a low-cost and efficient process to coat electrodes with platinum-iridium in a roughened surface morphology and the benefits of their efforts are numerous.
“We believe this technology will enable a new generation of neural stimulation devices that can be manufactured in a more automated way,” said Weiland, “which can reduce the cost of health care even more.” Currently, most biomedical electrodes are assembled manually: the platinum electrode tips (or contacts) are tack-welded to platinum wire “leads” that are then placed into forming molds which are filled with silicone rubber to insulate the wires. There are no simple, automated processes for handling platinum and iridium due to their unique material properties (e.g. very high melting temperature, low solubilities, resistance to oxidation and low vapor pressures).
There have been attempts to transition to microfabrication processes, like those used to assemble microchips, however, numerous studies have shown that electrode tips fabricated this way cannot survive long-term implantation in the body.
Smooth (top) versus roughened surface
Though the innovation is big, the team behind it is small. Meet James Weiland, Jack Whalen and Artin Petrossians, the three scientists behind Platinum Group Coatings, LLC.
The concept was first proposed several years ago. “Could it be possible to electrochemically co-deposit platinum and iridium to produce a low-impedance electrode?” wondered Whalen and Weiland in 2004. “Published methods for electrodepositing single composition electrodes had already been published and used in medical applications, but no group had demonstrated an electrochemical process for co-depositing both materials together.” Enter PGC’s third member, Artin Petrossians.
Dr. Artin Petrossians, then a graduate student of the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science took on the challenge to develop this novel electroplating process. Petrossians’ Ph.D. dissertation work under advisors Professor Florian Mansfeld and Professor James Weiland was one of the research efforts of USC’s National Science Foundation-sponsored, Biomimetic Microelectonic Systems (BMES) – Engineering Research Center (ERC), founded in 2003.
It was Petrossian’s hard work and long nights in the laboratory that led to the development of the actual process for the deposition. Said Petrossians, “Co-deposition of these two precious metals in a predictable and desirable way is non-trivial. We investigated a number of different conditions and chemistries before identifying a reliable process to make our coatings.”
With financial support from USC’s BMES-ERC, Petrossians was able to investigate the relationship between electrochemical process conditions and the resulting coating’s composition and morphology. It took 5 years of discovery and development to finally come up with a process that was reliable and repeatable.
BMES-ERC, a center “dedicated to the development of implantable microelectronic devices for the treatment of presently incurable diseases" was the perfect place to research and develop their technology. The center, a collaboration between USC, Caltech and UCLA, integrates faculty and students with medical device industry partners to discover, develop and commercialize innovative and disruptive technologies..
Last year in October, as he was completing his Ph.D. work, Dr. Petrossians saw an announcement for the Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition, a business plan competition open exclusively to USC Annenberg, Marshall or Viterbi students to encourage ideas that address today’s global challenges. To the team with the most impactful and innovative business plan goes $50,000 to be used toward building the company and product. Petrossians suggested they prepare a proposal and so they did. As a part of the competition, PGC was joined with its fourth member – team mentor Karen Jaffe. “Had it not been for Artin finding this opportunity, I’m not sure PGC would have accelerated as quickly as it did,” said Weiland.
Jaffe, like all other mentors in MEPC, was assigned to PGC by the competition. When asked why she became a MEPC mentor, Jaffe responded: "Innovation and entrepreneurship has always been a passion. There is so much innovation and opportunity in the laboratories and classrooms at USC. The only way that we can realize their potential is by collaborating... to inspire one of the best engines to our economy." With more than 25 years of experience in the implementation of technology in the enterprise and telecommunications areas, Jaffe has recently moved on to life sciences, currently pursuing her Master’s in USC’s Medical Regulatory Sciences program and interning at the Alfred E. Mann Institute, the medical technology incubator on campus. “She really gave us the fourth post for the roof of the house,” said Whalen, “Karen helped us perform a market analysis, assess our competition, understand how to position ourselves, and make our business case.”
Though PGC did not win the $50,000 MEPC seed money in the end, it has forged ahead, continuing to work toward bringing its technology to industry. Jaffe continues to provide essential business advice, suggesting other sources of funding to help grow the company. To this end the team submitted a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant proposal to the National Science Foundation a couple months ago and is submitting an SBIR to the National Institutes of Health in August. PGC hopes to use the grant money to further validate its technology for biomedical applications. They have also been reaching out to manufacturers. A pilot study has been developed with a Southern California medical device manufacturer and a potential collaboration is in the works with another manufacturer. Beyond the biomedical realm, PGC is looking into applying its technology to fuel cells. Whatever the company does, it has a bright future ahead.
“I could not have asked for a better team,” said Jaffe. “The drive and passion of the team is infectious. They are uniquely poised to provide the medical device industry with the technology to enable the next generation of implantable devices.” Beerel added, “There is no doubt in my mind that they will be successful moving forward and it was an honor to help them along this path!”