FridayPiday: Aaron Cohen (SDSU, 2009)

Brother Aaron Cohen (SDSU, 2009) believes the end is in sight for glaucoma. He is the lead engineer of MicroOptx, a medical device manufacturer in Minnesota, and its cutting-edge Brown Glaucoma Implant technology looks to halt the effects of the disease. Glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness in the world, and there is no cure. The disease occurs when there is excess pressure in the eye. As pressure increases in the eye, it puts pressure on the optic nerve. As the nerve gets squished, cells in the eye die and you go blind. “Right now, there are approximately five medical devices out there that are intended to treat glaucoma. These devices shunt the excess pressure to another part of the body. MicroOptx looks to shunt the liquid to the tear film, so that its external.” While some see this as a risky procedure because it could be a conduit for infection, MicroOptx technology prevents this from happening. This makes it a revolutionary device in the ocular world.

“Two hundred thousand people are diagnosed with glaucoma each year. People are going blind because nothing works to bring their optic nerve pressure low enough to prevent the progression of blindness. The opportunity to make a difference in the world with MicroOptx was so apparent that I had to pick up my life and move to Minnesota. This will be a blockbuster product; it will literally change the world overnight.”

The average intraocular pressure for a human eye is about 15 millimeters of mercury. In order to prevent the progression of blindness, you have to bring that pressure level down to 12 millimeters. “Our technology is averaging 11.6 in trials, so we’re having stellar results.” Their first patient to successfully receive the Brown Glaucoma Implant in April 2018 paved the way for them to finish animal testing and seek approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Also working with BfArM, Germany’s equivalent of the FDA, they have implanted 15 patients and are about to start their pivotal trial. “This trial will have about 60-70 patients. Once we finish, we’ll be able to market the device. It’s absolutely surreal and a dream come true that we’ve made it to this point. After graduation, all I wanted to do was turn my garage into a manufacturing device facility and now I’m almost there.”

So how did a hardworking engineer on the verge of possible curing glaucoma get to this point? Brother Cohen attended San Diego State University where he joined AEPi. “AEPi was one of the biggest things in my life, it put me in direct contact with so many other young Jewish men who had the same experiences as me. They gave me a community which I desperately needed since I was on my own.” In order to help his family with school expenses, he left SDSU and eventually found himself at UC Davis studying biomedical engineering. While studying at Davis, the head of the nanotechnology center teamed up with him to start a medical device manufacturing company called TacSense in 2015. “A lot of the skills I learned in the Fraternity translated well when I started TacSense.”

Aaron Cohen (SDSU, 2009) showcasing at the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists (ACVO) Expo where he and his team first introduced its canine clinical trial. The SalVO device is a sister product to the Brown Glaucoma Implant, and is currently being tested in the veterinary market to treat canines with glaucoma. From left to right: Lisa Martin, Director of Business Development and Finance Amy Derosier, VP of Clinical Affairs Myself, VP of Engineering and Manufacturing Susan Pforr, Quality Assurance Specialist Steven Maurer, Manufacturing Engineer

TacSense was created to support various entrepreneurial clients that wanted to develop products but didn’t have a strong engineering team in house. “MicroOptx was our first customer. I worked with them for two years and then decided to split ways with TacSense so I could move and work full-time with MicroOptx. With them, I was able to build a manufacturing facility from scratch and now we’re producing hundreds of devices per month. It’s my job as the head of engineering and manufacturing to make sure we meet all of our standards in order to make medical devices.” While their mission is to change the way the world treats glaucoma, they hope the company’s platform technology can be applied to various other diseases that relate to the eye.

Right now, the Brown Glaucoma Implant can treat patients with moderate to severe glaucoma. “These are the patients who have tried all drugs and nothing has worked. Our device is an implant that has a life expectancy of one year. We’re hoping to increase that to two years before it’s approved by the FDA.” Patients will need to go in and have the procedure done again. The procedure only takes about 40 seconds, which is much shorter than other medical devices that have 30-minute procedures. “These procedures are very intensive and rather dangerous in my opinion. We only have to give the patient a simple incision and insert the device.” In 2017, Minnesota recognized MicroOptx as the best new startup with the MN Cup.

“MicroOptx expects to take the ocular industry by storm. We have some very talented engineers with a lot of experience in the ocular world. I find myself motivated every day by the patients. We had someone whose eye was completely cloudy one day, but bright and beautiful the day after their procedure. We made a difference in their life, how powerful is that?”