Saving stroke victims with the world’s smallest camera

Founder Fuel: Student startup helps surgeons remove blood clots in the brain

Faculty of Engineering

The entrepreneurship ecosystem at Waterloo Engineering nurtures promising ideas into thriving enterprises. In our weekly Founder Fuel series, we look at new ventures and how they have benefited from that crucial early support.

According to high-profile venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya, launching any startup is hard, so you might as well aim high. Michael Phillips and his roommate Phillip Cooper (both BASc ’17, mechanical engineering, entrepreneurship option) took that advice seriously when they co-founded Vena Medical.

For their Capstone Design project, the pair decided to create a camera that could help surgeons remove blood clots from the brains of stroke patients. That meant making the world’s smallest camera - and making it flexible enough to travel through a maze of veins and arteries.

They knew they would need all the help they could muster, plus a whole lot of money, so they lined up advisors from Waterloo Engineering and the Conrad Centre and started sending out funding proposals.

In 2017, their focused approach secured support from the Esch awards, the Engineer of the Future Fund and the Palihapitiya Venture Creation Fund.

"By the time we graduated, we had $150,000 in grants," Phillips says.

One success led to the next, including patents, pre-clinical trials and widely cited journal articles.

The team also invented a complementary device that recently received Health Canada approval: a balloon distal access catheter that allows doctors to get much closer to a clot, making it easier to remove.

"It’s been a pretty exciting five years. But once we start treating patients, that’s when it will be real," says Phillips, adding that they expect human trials to begin by the end of 2022.

Clearly, aiming high has paid off, but Phillips also credits the Accelerator Centre, Velocity, Communitech and other early stage supporters for helping Vena Medical hit the mark.

"They make it easy to start a company," he says.

This story first featured in WEAL 2022 .