Murray Legg founded SA Cardiosynthetics, a Johannesburg-based startup, to combine his two great interest: business and engineering. The health startup provides heart-valve replacements to communities without access to advanced technology in cardiac surgery.
Legg says there have been approximately 500, 000 heart valve replacements carried out, most of which are in developed markets who enjoy advanced healthcare and surgeons.
It’s emerging markets that have an urgent need for such a product, but have not yet benefited from technological advances. According to Legg, this is because its emerging markets that have a high prevalence of diseases like rheumatic fever which if left untreated, can lead to valve disease. “Rheumatic fever is prevalent in the BRICS countries and heart-valve replacements are needed to give the patient an extended life,” he says. The valve is intended to address a gap in healthcare.
The startup has already completed the theoretical engineering and technical validation of the valve and is now focusing how it will operate in the patient’s heart. Next on the list will be animal trials and tests to ensure that the devices can operate in a biological setting, and how it will handle the effects of stress in the body.
Legg, 29, formally established SA Cardiosynthetics in 2012. He studied mechanical engineering at Pretoria University both his undergraduate and honours. He has a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from the University of the North West and has experience in developing and commercialising products in the biomedical market.
For the venture, Legg’s partnered with 72-year old David J Wheatley, a former professor of cardiac surgery at the University of Glasgow with a a 27-year tenure at the British Heart Foundation. His practical surgery experience was instrumental in the design of the heart-valve design replacement.
The partners self-funded the project for the past six years, during which time they considered various geometries and prototype designs. They have raised funding for the first phase of the project from government’s Technology Innovation Agency, which falls under the Department of Science and Technology, focusing on development and commercialisation of technology-based services and products.
Growing new hearts
How the innovation works, is a new artificial (prosthetic) valve is sewn into place through open heart operation. In some cases, the valve can be replaced without opening the chest, called minimally invasive surgery. The damaged valve is replaced through a small incision near the breastbone or under the right chest muscle.
What makes this procedure unique is that the replacements will not require the long-term medication normally needed after. “The replacement will outlast conventional tissue valves” explains Legg.
Legg and Wheatley have secured international patents for the intellectual property they’ve developed for the valve, the operation method and as well as future plans for a transcathether valve that will allow for minimally invasive surgery.
Patents have been secured in the US, Europe, India, China, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Japan and Canada.
Legg adds that SA Cadiosynthetics will start generating revenue once they can prove that the valve operates the same or better than the valves supplied by large valve manufacturers such as St. Jude Medical or Medtronic, which are their competitors.
African solutions to Africa’ problems
Legg says that a lot of great products conceptualised in South Africa don’t come to fruition because inventors aren’t always great businessmen: “This is definitely an area that can be addressed by companies, government, and universities, to grow entrepreneurial skills early in life.
“Africa itself is a continent with such diverse cultures, challenges and requirements for innovative solutions. The people best placed to address these challenges are people on the ground, within that particular settings,” he adds. “We’ll start seeing more and more African driven invention and product innovation in the next few years. As the manufacturing and support industries start growing, we’ll see some magic.”