The Winning Pitch Challenge

Ophthalmology’s would-be innovators now have help thanks to a ‘Shark Tank’-inspired competition.

Ophthalmologists tend to be a curious and innovative group who have great insight into potential ways to improve effectiveness of ocular diagnostic and therapeutic modalities. However, the vast majority of ophthalmologist-generated “great ideas” fail to advance to even early-stage products.

In most cases, we can explain this impediment by a lack of one or more of the following attributes:

  • Understanding of the start-up process
  • Relevant business acumen
  • Networking capabilities
  • Sufficient financial resources
  • Access to like-minded colleagues interested in sharing the risk and work associated with the development of new ideas.

This failure to move ideas forward inevitably leads to a slowing of idea development. It would, therefore, appear that we have an unmet need for resources that support and possibly accelerate the pace of innovation by busy, practicing ophthalmologists.

The Winning Pitch Challenge is designed to address this gap.


The Winning Pitch Challenge ( ) launched at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Retina Specialists in Boston on Aug. 13. Promoted as the “Retina version of ‘Shark Tank’ — without the bite” (“Shark Tank,” the ABC TV series, is not affiliated with this competition), the Winning Pitch Challenge is designed to be the capstone event of the broader web-based initiative that supports innovation by ophthalmologists. The competition elicited 17 submissions that fell into four general categories: devices, drug development, telemedicine and cloud-based retinal education (see sidebar, page 25). Twelve of the 17 submissions were already awarded patents or had filed provisional applications.

Contestants competed for a $10,000 first-place prize and an opportunity to engage the judges in further discussions regarding a possible equity investment in their concepts. All contestants significantly benefited from direct feedback on their ideas from both judges and mentors participating in The Winning Pitch Challenge Mentor Program.

The ideal candidate for this challenge was an ophthalmologist with an early-stage concept for solving a significant ophthalmic problem. Applicants were encouraged to have submitted at least a provisional application for patent by the time of The Winning Pitch Challenge submission deadline, since all pitch content would become part of the public domain.


The goal of The Winning Pitch Challenge is to develop an accessible ecosystem that supports, inspires and encourages physician-led innovation in ophthalmology. One element is the competition’s website, which will provide broad access to a variety of important resources that can help ophthalmologists throughout the innovation process. This includes an introduction to business and regulatory environments that they may need to navigate early in the development of new medical products and services. They will also learn about preclinical research services that they can use to test new medical treatments as well as how to initiate the process of design, engineering and prototype manufacturing for development of experimental medical devices.

Grand Prize Winning Pitch winner and directors (from left to right): David Williams, MD, MBA; Jeffrey Heier, MD; John Pollack, MD.

Other important topics include tips for avoiding pitfalls during the development process, the importance of securing intellectual property around novel treatments and services, and what criteria investors use to determine which companies are worthy of investment.

Armed with the necessary knowledge, tools and networking opportunities, an increasing number of innovative ophthalmologists will no doubt become the driving forces behind accelerated transformation of ideas that create meaningful solutions to problems that impact both patients and physicians.


We have recruited a world-class panel of investor-judges, including Emmett Cuningham, MD, PhD, MPH, managing director, Clarus Ventures; Gene de Juan, MD, vice-chairman, ForSight Labs; Bill Link, PhD, founder, Flying L Partners; Matt Chapin, SVP, Corporate Development, Ora, Inc; and Bill Voss, founder and managing director, Lake Pacific Partners. This independent panel of judges, who were also potential investors, selected the top four startups to advance to the final round, during which they pitched their ideas to the judges during the 2017 ASRS Annual Meeting.

Mentors were successful entrepreneurs, investors, executives and others who generously volunteered their time and expertise to help innovators succeed. All mentors had a passion for innovation and a wish to “give back” to the process. All semifinalists and finalists were offered the opportunity to pair with a mentor who provided feedback and guidance on business plans, strategy and pitch development.

Mentors included Steve Charles, MD (inventor and retina specialist); Vincent Deramo, MD (inventor and retina specialist); James Mazzo (global president, Ophthalmic Devices, Carl Zeiss Meditec); Zeshan Muhammedi (managing director, FundRx); Quinton Oswald (CEO, Notal Vision); Tushar Ranchod, MD (retina specialist and founder/chief medical officer, BroadSpot Imaging Corporation); Aron Shapiro (SVP, chief commercial officer, Ora, Inc.); and Bob Zatarain (VP Business Development, Oculus Surgical).

Judges graded submissions on objective criterial, including:

  1. Magnitude of problem
  2. Innovativeness of the proposed solution
  3. Market size, strategy and potential reimbursement
  4. Competitive analysis
  5. Business model, including capital requirements
  6. Intellectual property
  7. The team
  8. Offering and viability
  9. Clarity of request for investment


The four submissions selected to advance to the final round of pitching at the ASRS Annual Meeting were all impressive. David Almeida, MD, MBA, PhD, who represented Citrus Therapeutics, presented the first pitch. Cofounded with Eric Chin, MD, in 2015, Citrus Therapeutics’ single, under-development product, CTX1, is a novel agent designed for the treatment of both the dry and wet AMD. Its mechanism of action includes both antioxidant activity ideal for oxidative stress encountered in dry AMD and nonselective interference with nicotinic acetylcholine angiogenic pathways that may have utility in both dry and wet forms of AMD. Citrus Therapeutics concluded its pitch with a request for $250,000 to fund synthesis and in vitro studies of CTX1.

Jeffrey Benner, MD, representing The Drug Delivery company and cofounder, Steven Cohen, MD, presented the second pitch. Their product was a novel drug-delivery system consisting of a bioabsorbable, drug-eluting balloon implant that releases both biologics and small-molecule drugs for approximately one year. The implant is an intravitreal balloon that holds approximately 150 µl and is inserted through a microincision. It is inflated with a drug-loaded hydrogel. The pitch concluded with a $1.3 million dollar request to finish iteration and good manufacturing practices with a likely total $16 million capital need.

Jeffrey Heier, MD, chief medical officer of iLoopes, presented the third pitch. Cofounded by Jon Fox, MD, Eric Hassey and Ed Weisberg, iLoopes is a means of adapting virtually any technology to “smart glasses.” It is based on a proprietary software that transforms commercially available “smart glasses” into devices that enable patients to magnify, increase contrast, filter and change their images in other ways that make patients more productive. They promote the “assisted reality” device as attractive, easy to use and less expensive than competitors. The pitch concluded with a request for $500,000 to fund product development, launch, legal and IP expenses, and market validation.

Ed Ryan, MD, a serial entrepreneur who has already commercialized several successful retina products, was last up. Dr. Ryan’s innovation is an eyedrop-assist device that he calls “Eye-Let.” This product is designed to address the challenge of getting eye drops onto the eye.

The device is a single-use strip of soft, malleable material with a well for holding a partial eyedrop on one end of the strip. The device would save patients money by using less solution per drop and would make it much easier for patients with reduced dexterity to apply drops to the eye. The pitch ended with a $350,000 request that would pay for design, prototyping, FDA, sterilization, biocompatibility testing, tooling, packaging and marketing.

The Winning Pitch Challenge submissions

  1. David Almeida, MD, MBA, PhD – Citrus Therapeutics CTX1: A novel treatment for dry and wet AMD
  2. Jeffrey Benner, MD – DDC absorbable balloon implant long-term drug delivery device
  3. Jordan Burnham, MD – Eyedrop cap design for low-vision patients
  4. Steven Cohen, MD – Web-based retina education service
  5. Brenda Yazmin Juarez Dominguez, MD – Diabetic retinopathy “protein factor”
  6. Mitchell Fineman, MD – Ocular numbing device
  7. Brett Foxman, MD – Scleral depressor modified for use with BIOM widefield viewing system
  8. Jeffrey Heier, MD – iLoopes low-vision aid
  9. Leanne Labriola, MD – OccuCheck diagnostic device for ruptured globe detection
  10. Matias Iglicki, MD, and Dinah Zur, MD – TELeye-MD diabetic telemedicine proposal
  11. Raj Maturi, MD – Nozzle designed for intraocular delivery of material
  12. Ed Ryan, MD – Eye drop applicator
  13. Ed Ryan, MD – Subconjunctival injection device
  14. Ed Ryan, MD – Betadine well/Intravitreal injection guide
  15. George Sanborn, MD – Low-cost imaging device combining photography and OCT
  16. Ajay Singh, MD – Subretinal drainage device
  17. Paul Tornambe, MD – Removable scleral buckle

After a very close final vote, Dr. Heier’s iLoopes won the first-place prize of $10,000. Dr. Benner’s The Drug Delivery Company balloon implant came in second place, Ed Ryan’s Drop-Let finished in third place and David Almeida’s CTX1 came in fourth place.

However, it was an impressive feat for each of the 17 contestants; at least one judge stated about each one that they would be interested in further discussions about a future, potential equity investment.


Our hats go off to everyone who submitted great ideas on how to improve the quality of care for our patients. We also thank the judges and mentors that devoted so much time, effort and expertise to make the Winning Pitch Challenge at ASRS 2017 a great success in its inaugural year.

The Pitch will be an annual event at ASRS; it also is slated for ASCRS 2019. OM

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