A City for Startups

How Baltimore’s early-stage ecosystem has helped one biotech entrepreneur develop a new, life-saving medical device.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to call David Narrow something of a wunderkind. He isn’t even 30 years old yet—and he’s already launched two startups.

It was while an undergraduate at the University of Rochester that he co-founded his first business—MonoMano cycling, which creates adaptive cycling equipment, intended to facilitate exercise, freedom and socialization for stroke survivors, amputees, and others struggling with limited mobility.

But Narrow didn’t stop there. In 2013, he returned home to Baltimore to attend Johns Hopkins University in pursuit of a master’s in bioengineering innovation and design. It was there that he began collaborating with a plastic surgeon, Dr. Devin O’Brien Coon, with whom he wanted to create some sort of medical device, then still undecided.

The pair was examining different unmet clinical needs, when Coon told Narrow about the frequency of post-operative blood clots among patients recovering from reconstructive surgery. It’s a common complication that often results in additional major surgeries—dangerous and complicated for the patient, and very expensive for the healthcare system. “But if you can detect the problem early enough, you're able to resolve the problem and the patient ends up leaving the hospital perfectly healthy,” says Narrow.

Narrow and Coon joined up with a Hopkins professor of medical imaging, Dr. Xin (Ben) Kang, to develop ultrasound devices that can help detect the clots as soon as they form, with plenty of time for a medical team to intervene. The result: “You're no longer at risk for these catastrophic surgical failures,” says Narrow. And just like that, Sonavex was born. The company rose quickly, winning Maryland Incubator Company of the Year in 2016 and raising several million in funding over the following years. In June, the FDA approved their EchoMark device for marketing, a major milestone.

For Narrow, a Baltimore native, being based here in his home city has been a major asset in developing Sonavex. He credits a well-established ecosystem for supporting early-stage companies, with assistance coming from sources that range from the city’s universities, incubators and accelerators to established execs who donate their time, advice and expertise to a Maryland tax credit that rewards investment in biotechnology.

Add to that Baltimore’s well-connected, easy access to other key cities on the East Coast, and an affordable cost of living. “People are starting to realize that Baltimore is a fun place to live, and you can do so on an entrepreneur's salary without draining the company's bank account,” says Narrow, who hopes the city’s investment in new ideas will only continue to expand.

“Once some of these earlier-stage companies start to become successful, people from other hubs start to recognize Baltimore as an ecosystem where they can be successful,” he says. “I think that momentum will continue to build, you'll have more investment in more talent, and hopefully everything will just snowball.”