Biotech Brothers Bring Innovations to the Market

Two brothers combine their backgrounds in biology, medicine, business and law to create an innovative biomedical startup.

March 02, 2016 Diane Krieger

As boys, Arman MS ’04, MBA ’10 and Afshin Nadershahi MD ’09 would go on adventures in the woods behind their suburban St. Louis home. “We’d explore all day. We’d build forts,” says Arman, the elder by two years. “Sometimes we’d form expeditions and bring along a motley crew of kids.”

Today, the Nadershahi brothers scout a different frontier as entrepreneurs: a tangled thicket of patent filings, product prototyping and the thorny Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process.

Their medical device startup, Proa Medical, spun out of USC’s Alfred E. Mann Institute for Biomedical Engineering (AMI) high-tech accelerator. The name Proa is Spanish for the prow of a ship and was chosen for the symbolism of cutting through the open seas. Based in Redondo Beach, California, the company brings physician-invented gadgets to market. Their first two products—the Brella vaginal retractor and the Brella-Spec vaginal speculum—received FDA approval in 2014 and are in limited trials in hospitals.

Every day, 360,000 babies come into the world, making child delivery one of the globe’s highest-volume procedures. It turns out that the health care workers delivering these babies would benefit from sterile gynecological devices they could use once and discard.

In Western hospitals, Arman explains, the time it takes to set up, sterilize and replace reusable devices would be far better spent on patient care. And in developing countries, where women routinely give birth in unsterile environments, disposable gynecological devices could greatly reduce the risk of infections.

Eleven more Proa devices are already in the pipeline, half of them geared toward women’s health.

Looking back, Proa seems like the Nadershahi brothers’ destiny. For starters, medicine runs in their family: Their Iranian-born father is a retired physician, and an older brother has a medical practice in Seattle. (A fourth brother works in information technology.)

Arman and Afshin earned master’s degrees in biology at the University of Minnesota before Arman got his law degree there and headed to California to work as a biotech patent lawyer. That’s when Arman had his epiphany.

Doctors would approach him with terrific ideas for new devices, but their ideas invariably went nowhere because “physicians are really busy doing their full-time job treating patients,” Arman says. “I thought, There’s obviously a need here.”

So Arman ditched his prestigious law firm and went back to school, earning his master’s degree in regulatory science from the USC School of Pharmacy. Soon he was working at AMI, combining his regulatory and legal knowledge to move biotech innovations to market.

Meanwhile, Afshin had followed Arman to USC, enrolling at the Keck School of Medicine and interning at AMI, where he too was swept up in research and development.

Because of the brothers’ AMI connection, some of their company’s revenues will return to AMI, where Arman serves as senior director for corporate intellectual property counsel.

At Proa, the brothers assembled a team that shepherds devices through product development and complex approval processes. For the Brella devices, they needed dozens of studies just to establish the biocompatibility of different plastics and the safety of their lighting. They even tested packaging to measure shelf life and shipping durability.

“It’s almost an extension of what we did as kids,” Arman says. “Playing, exploring, building stuff, getting a team together, seeing what happens, going into uncharted territory.”