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Company Feature: Hubly Surgical

Hubly Surgical Inc. is a neurosurgical device company currently focused on reducing the 20% lethal complication rate of the world’s most common neurosurgery: the skull puncture. In this procedure, a physician bores a hole through the skull. It is performed 100,000 per year in the United States, and Hubly aims to make the skull puncture safe. “Born and bred out of Farley Center’s classroom at Northwestern,” Hubly now features a leadership team with three alumni: CEO Casey Grage, Director of Clinical Development Dr. Amit Ayer, and Director Mark Fisher.

Hubly’s Founding

“Hubly would not exist without the NUvention medical course. It is where the founding members met each other, devised an idea, and developed a prototype,” says Casey. Incidentally, she only learned of the Farley Center course after overhearing a conversation in the Ford building. She applied online and became the first-ever undergraduate student to be accepted.

At the start of the course in October 2017, Casey and her team of five others were tasked with creating a business idea based on a medical market need. After much deliberation, they settled on a dire need brought to light by the team’s neurosurgeon, who was simultaneously pursuing his MBA. During Dr. Ayer’s neurosurgical residency, he had performed the ventriculostomy, a skull puncture procedure to drain excess fluid from the brain, over 100 times. Every time, he had become more agitated with the procedure due to the free-hand, hand-cranked drill to which he was limited. As he recounted, many of his fellow neurosurgeons, including his attendings, hated the inadequate technology. A quick search through scientific journals indicated an egregiously high complication rate, often resulting in hemorrhage and death. It became clear: neurosurgeons needed better tools to increase the success rate of the incredibly commonly performed skull puncture.

Casey, Nisar, and Amit at the PitchTX SXSW Competition

Hubly as the Solution

With a target market and business idea in mind, the Hubly team kicked off the second quarter of the course by conducting scientific literature reviews and customer interviews to identify how the skull puncture complication rate is so high. Their research led them to identify neurosurgeons’ three main concerns: lack of drill stability and guidance, misguided drilling angle and depth, and misplaced catheters. After identifying the problem areas, the Hubly team applied the principles of physics and bioengineering to devise a device that would include drilling guidance, auto-retraction upon skull puncture to prevent drilling into brain tissue, and catheter guidance. Knowing that skull punctures are often emergency procedures, they added battery power so the drill is not limited by setting. Once the goals of the new drill were established, countless hours went into building the first Hubly Drilling System prototype.

Beyond NUvention

By the end of the course in March 2018, the team had created a viable business plan and conducted over 40 neurosurgeon surveys and interviews. Moving forward, the members of the team knew they had discovered a real need in neurosurgery: lives were being lost at the hand of unsafe, ineffective, and expensive technology. However, their company was still in infancy. They decided the next step was conducting more market research, getting to know each other as founders, and further developing the product. “Saving thousands of lives, billion dollar company... I was eighteen! That was beyond my thinking then,” says Casey. “We stayed laser-focused on incremental progress. We kept asking, okay what’s next?”

When September came along, Hubly was looking like a real possibility. After joining The Garage, Northwestern’s incubator, the team started applying to pitch competitions. Simultaneously, patent law student and Hubly member Nate Andrews filed a provisional patent application. As an incubator, The Garage provided Hubly with a coworking space, educational events to better understand the entrepreneur journey, and opportunities to apply to competitions where judges would grant awards to startups with the most promising company pitches.

From January to April 2019, the team participated and won multiple pitch competitions, generating positive feedback, spurring growth, and increasing funding for the company. With the earnings, Hubly hired a legal service to officially incorporate as a Delaware CCorp in May 2019. All the team members had now officially graduated with their respective degrees, and it was becoming clear that Hubly had the potential to become a $1B company, and more importantly, save lives. While none of the team members were ready to go full-time on Hubly yet, they had enough confidence to take the company to the next level: pre-accelerators, which are programs that help companies prepare for pitches to investors and write applications to accelerators. In December 2019, Hubly was accepted to the Alchemist Accelerator, after which Casey Grage took the first leap, quit her six-figure salary, and joined full-time.

Current Status

Long after Hubly had grown beyond the classroom, Farley remained a valuable resource in fostering Hubly’s success. Casey recalls applying for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant program. A judge revealed in the final interview that Hubly would benefit from providing further evidence of academic origin. With decisions looming, Casey rushed to receive a letter of support from the Farley Center. She received and relayed an outstanding recommendation within hours and was notified of Hubly’s NSF grant award two days later. “The center and the university have always been kind and supportive of Hubly, and their teachings have stayed with us long after graduation,” remarks Casey. 

 Operational prototypes of the Hubly Drilling System

Currently, Hubly has developed Hubly Drilling System operational prototypes and are looking forward to conducting cadaver studies in collaboration with Northwestern Medicine. The company has raised approximately $340,000 in pre-seed investments, pitch competitions, and grants. Even more exciting, the Hubly team has grown up to 30 members strong. This summer, Hubly will be participating in domestic and international customer discovery through two grant programs with the National Science Foundation and Chilean government, respectively.

The future of Hubly remains bright, with next steps being to expand on applications of their technology. Casey hopes to “create two additional devices utilizing the same plunge prevention machinery but specifically designed for spinal taps and epidurals.”

Complications in bedside procedures, whether that is skull punctures, spinal taps, or epidurals, can cost the healthcare industry billions of dollars, while placing hundreds of thousands of lives at risk. As COVID-19 has placed hospitals in a unique financial crisis, finding ways to eliminate unnecessary costs is a must, and Hubly can play a critical role in saving lives and money.

“The Hubly Drilling System is an easy and fast way to reduce costs, free up beds, get patients out of the hospital, reduce readmits, and allow all neurosurgeons, regardless of experience, to have successful patient outcomes,” says Casey. “Our vision is to make all bedside neurosurgical procedures safe and successful in saving lives.”

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