In a nondescript storefront across from the Habitat Resale Store on Harris Street, a small biomedical engineering firm is hoping to revolutionize male contraception.
Contraline, founded by University of Virginia graduate Kevin Eisenfrats and the late Dr. John Herr, a professor of cell biology and biomedical engineering at the university, moved into its first permanent home last month.
The company is developing an ultrasound-visible gel which will be injected into the vas deferens to block the passage of sperm. The solution is designed to be easily reversed by injecting a second solution to dissolve the gel.
The centerpiece of the new space is the 1,200-square-foot Herr Lab, where Eisenfrats and his team do all the product development on their contraceptive gel.
The lab is named in honor of UVa cell biologist and biomedical engineer John Herr, who co-founded Contraline with Eisenfrats.
Herr, 68, passed away suddenly in September.
“There are very few people at the intersection of biomedical engineering and reproductive medicine, and Dr. Herr was doing that,” Eisenfrats said. “This lab is going to be where we carry on his legacy, where that intersection happens.”
At the grand opening Friday night, Eisenfrats gave The Herr Lab a succinct and ambitious mission.
“The lab you are standing in will be the lab where the biggest issues regarding contraception and infertility will be solved,” he said.
The space is compact and streamlined. Eisenfrats and his team, which recently grew to include Chief Operating Officer Nikki Hastings, occupy an open-office layout in the first 1,000 square feet or so of their new space.
Rounding out the company are Dr. Gerelyn Henry, director of translational research and pathology; Dr. Ryan Smith, director of clinical research; and product engineer Eric Moran.
Henry, who has studied parallels between human and animal medicine and has studied global health, said the product’s potential to affect reproductive choice around the world drew her to the company.
“It is near and dear to my heart,” she said. “I see so many places where Contraline can make a difference and have a positive influence.”
Moran, who graduated from UVa with a biomedical engineering degree in May, echoed Henry’s sentiment.
“I came here because I had heard about the project through some fellow student interns, and it was the first project that had struck me as truly new and exciting,” he said. “The potential for societal transformation is huge.”
Hastings, formerly of Charlottesville-based pharmaceutical and biotechnology research firm Hemoshear, said Contraline’s position as an early-stage company and its research goals inspired her to come aboard.
“When I heard about some of the needs that Contraline had, we were able to spin out a conversation from there,” she said. “I am super fired-up about this product and what it means not just for contraception, but for global health.”
To keep it from feeling like just another small office, Eisenfrats contracted muralist Jack Graves to cover one wall of the office with an image of a couple facing a sunset. Graves knocked the work out in the space of one business week, the fastest, he said, he has ever worked.
Though Herr is gone, honoring his legacy adds a new layer of motivation for the fledgling company.
“The mission of Contraline and carrying out his legacy is stronger than ever,” Hastings said.
The lab allows Contraline to keep its product research and development in-house, with Eisenfrats and his team running experiments and logging data. Many other small firms in the pharmaceutical industry outsource that work, Eisenfrats said.
“That method works — it is very expensive, but it works,” he said. “The problem is, you can’t see with your own eyes your product and see if it works.”
Contraline engineers can test and experiment to their heart’s content in the new lab, changing and adapting as results dictate.
“We are as hands-on as possible,” Eisenfrats said. “That sets us apart, because there is normally no iterative process in biotechnology.”
At the same time, the company focuses on checking with potential customers about what would make a product attractive to them.
Instead of producing a drug or procedure with a list of side effects and taking it to market, the company tries to glean from potential customers what the gel should and should not do.
That strategy and the hands-on testing and re-testing research model make Contraline more similar to a traditional technology company.
“[Customers] have to love what we are trying to build,” Eisenfrats said. “We don’t want to build something that people don’t want to use, so in that way we are like a tech company.”