Oxford BioSignals poised to add up to 120 jobs: Indiana’s life sciences market, $2.7 million in incentives attract medical startup

How does aviation technology conceived at Oxford University and developed with the help of Rolls-Royce end up being tested at Methodist Hospital and commercialized in Carmel?

Oxford BioSignals Medical CEO Frank Cheng knows the answer. Even better, he can explain why his startup is poised to add 120 jobs over the next few years.

“At this point, I don’t see anything we can’t do right here in Indiana,” he said.

Formed in 2000, Oxford BioSignals began its life when research scientists in the United Kingdom developed a new system to electronically monitor the performance of aircraft engines. By continuously monitoring indicators such as oil pressure, temperature, speed of vibration and noise, it can instantly diagnose problems-or detect potential ones days or months ahead of a breakdown.

In 2003, Rolls-Royce signed a 10-year strategic purchase agreement and began testing the technology in Indianapolis. Along the way, Oxford BioSignals realized that its system could also be applied to monitor human health.

So the company reconfigured the technology to simultaneously observe the results of medical machines that observe heart rates, blood pressure, breathing rates and the saturation of oxygen in the blood. Along the way, Oxford BioSignals attracted $20 million in venture capital from a syndicate of U.K. investors.

Cheng, a former Roche Diagnostics vice president of business development, joined the firm in 2004. He soon led Oxford BioSignals through a clinical trial at Methodist Hospital. Its purpose was to show the technology can help eliminate false emergency alerts.

More than 80 percent of hospital alerts are false alarms, Cheng said. They can occur for all sorts of reasons. If a patient coughs, his heart briefly races. This registers on his heart monitor and nurses come running. Over time, they learn to ignore most of these unnecessary warnings, Cheng said. Then, when a real crisis occurs, their response is slowed.

Oxford BioSignals’ analytics software also churns all the data to predict whether a health crisis is imminent.

“We generally have two to four hours’ advance warning compared to other systems,” Cheng said. “When you deal with a crisis, five minutes or a half hour is a crucial time. We’re the smoke alarm for [nurses], to let them know which room has a crisis brewing.”

Oxford BioSignals has seven employees in Carmel. On March 16, the company was slated to announce expansion plans thanks to a $2.7 million package of incentives it received from the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and the city of Carmel.

Economic developers had to fight to keep the company here. Oxford BioSignals had conducted its second clinical trial at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The steel city attempted to lure Oxford BioSignals with an incentives package of its own.

“We knew we were going to have to really chase this down,” said IEDC’s Life Sciences Director Todd Pedersen.

For Indiana Secretary of Commerce Nathan Feltman, Oxford BioSignals’ decision to grow in Carmel is evidence that Indiana’s efforts to cultivate the life sciences sector are paying off.

“It speaks volumes about the recognition, not just in Indiana, but globally, that our sector and strengths are now attracting. That is critically important,” he said. “This is great recognition that companies around the world-global entities in life science-are saying Indiana has what it takes to compete globally, and we want to invest.”

For Cheng, the decision boiled down to proximity to potential customers. He’s hoping to market Oxford BioSignals’ device not only to hospitals, but also to life sciences companies developing drugs and medical devices of their own.

In 2001, the FDA tightened its regulations for heart monitoring in pharmaceutical clinical trials, Cheng said. There’s great opportunity in the drug-development market for a device that can accurately and quickly track and report the necessary data gathered from humans and animals.

With its wealth of life sciences activity, Indiana is chock-full of potential customers. The incentives didn’t hurt either, he said.

“I’ll tell you, the IEDC’s moves and all these grants made it pretty easy to stay,” Cheng said.

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