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Duke-Georgia Tech Spinal Implant Start-Up Acquired by NuVasive

The start-up founded by MEMS Chair Ken Gall pioneered a novel porous PEEK technology

DURHAM, N.C. -- Vertera Spine, a start-up created through research at both Duke University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, has been acquired by NuVasive, Inc. (NASDAQ: NUVA), a leading medical device company focused on transforming spine surgery with minimally disruptive, procedurally integrated solutions. 

Vertera was founded in 2013 by Ken Gall, who was in the School of Materials Science at Georgia Tech at the time and is now chair of Duke’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science.

Vertera Spine is based on a novel process to create porous PEEK (polyetherether ketone), a high strength biopolymer that allows for better bone attachment and repair following spinal surgery.

“Making a porous plastic is relatively easy, but the scientific problem Vertera solved is making the porous material high-strength and tuning the porosity so that bones stick to it,” said Gall, a noted biomaterials engineer and serial entrepreneur who worked with Bob Guldberg, the executive director of the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience at Georgia Tech, to perfect the biological and mechanical properties of the polymer.

During lumbar or cervical spinal fusion procedures, physicians insert a spinal cage implant between vertebrae to provide stability and support while the segments fuse. Although some orthopedic implants have long contained porosity to facilitate bone integration, spinal cages have only recently contained porosity.

Prior to Vertera’s porous PEEK polymer, porous spinal cages were only available in metals, which do not show up as well in medical imaging. 

“Our porous PEEK is the first FDA-cleared load-bearing porous plastic implant in the human body, and it’s the first porous implant that has the potential to be tracked for bony attachment by CT scan,” Gall said.

Gall and his collaborators at Vertera created porous PEEK by discovering a way to form a highly porous, interconnected network from a solid surface without adding or subtracting material and without negatively impacting the mechanical properties of the material. Once they discovered the method to create the porosity, they systematically altered the size of the pores in the polymer, carefully adjusting them so that the polymer was still highly interconnected and finely tuned to facilitate bony attachment. 

According to Gall, bone cells can sense the surrounding three-dimensional network as they grow, allowing the implant to effectively attach to the bone. Post implantation, physicians can monitor the implant using a CT scan, as the polymer doesn’t affect the imaging technology.

The porous PEEK technology was first clinically introduced in 2016 when Vertera launched their COHERE implant. So far, more than 2,000 of these implants have been successfully used in spinal surgeries.

“Our preclinical testing of the Vertera porous PEEK implant technology at Georgia Tech showed that it dramatically increases integration strength with bone following implantation,” said Guldberg. “It’s been very exciting to help translate collaborative research into innovative commercial products that are improving outcomes for back surgery patients.”

The development of this technology was originally supported by the Georgia Research Alliance, an organization through Georgia Tech that supports startup companies around inventions and discoveries. The Duke Angel Network (DAN) provided additional support to further grow the entrepreneurial venture during the company’s second and third round of funding.  

The Duke Angel Network exists within the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative (I&E), which helps Duke entrepreneurial companies grow by facilitating the flow of capital and support from Duke angel investors.

"We were honored to be a part of the Vertera success,” said John Glushik, the managing director of DAN. “The Duke Angel Network provided both capital and guidance to support a great Vertera team, and the results of this investment help validate our ability to support Duke entrepreneurs while producing great returns for our investors."

“The support from the Georgia Research Alliance was essential to help commercialize the product along the way,” says Gall, who joined Duke MEMS in 2015. “And the Duke I&E and the Duke Angel Network have provided us with capital investment and key guidance during the last two years of Vertera’s growth into the market. We are extremely fortunate at Duke to have this incredible resource for faculty, students and alumni entrepreneurs.”

To see how the porous PEEK works, check out our video below: