“Wild ride”: Opus Medical’s COO on improving cancer treatment as his startup goes global


Sean Pollock, Co-founder & COO of Opus Medical

Harnessing technology more than a decade in the making, the medical minds behind Opus Medical are pursuing a global opportunity exceeding $800 million to improve treatment outcomes for breast cancer patients.

Co-founded by Dr Sean Pollock (COO) and University of Sydney Professor Paul Keall (Director), the Sydney-based medtech startup is in the business of developing innovative and cost-effective solutions to complex cancer treatment problems. Their first product to date, the Breathe Well medical device, is designed to guide breast cancer patients to maintain an exact breath hold position during radiation treatment of targeted tissue.

According to Dr Pollock, Breathe Well is a dual value proposition. On one hand, the device improves the accuracy and efficiency of radiation treatment, enabling cancer treatment centres and hospitals to treat more patients each day. Critically, it ensures a patient’s healthy tissue – specifically, their heart and lungs – is moved as far away from the harmful radiation beam as possible.

In conversation with Dynamic Business, Dr Pollock discussed how he and Professor Keall went about commercialising the university research underpinning Opus Medical, the size of their addressable market, overcoming the challenges of transitioning from academia into entrepreneurship, his ambitions for the medtech startup and more.

DB: What led you and Professor Keall to found Opus Medical?

Pollock: Opus Medical spun out of the PhD research project I was undertaking at the University of Sydney (USYD) in 2014. I was carrying out clinical trials of the Breathe Well technology, which Paul – then my PhD supervisor – had conceived ten years earlier. Recognising that Breathe Well improved medical image quality as well as radiation treatment accuracy, the hospitals participating in our trials started asking if they could continue using the technology after we had finished our investigations.

At the time, however, Breathe Well was a research technology, meaning it could only be used for research purposes. To enable the broader clinical use of Breath Well, we knew we had to commercialise the technology. After seeking counsel from the university’s Commercial Development and Industry Partnerships office, we applied for Incubate and with the funding we received upon entry into the startup program, we incorporated as an actual company.

DB: What defines the working relationship with your co-founder?

Pollock: We share a curiosity of new opportunities and I’ve been encouraged to think outside the box. Opus Medical wouldn’t have happened if I was only able to stick to the clinical research; but I was allowed the freedom to explore new ideas and I received support and encouragement as the project started to deviate away from the norm towards commercialisation.

DB: How big is the addressable market for the Breathe Well device?

Pollock: We’re actively marketing and generating sales for our product, which is used in conjunction with radiation treatment machines. Considering these machines currently number 206 in Australia and 16,000 globally, this translates to a total addressable market of $800M for sales of our Breathe Well device plus annual recurring revenue of $160m due to our product service agreement for ongoing upgrades/repairs. Of course, this is only based on the potential for use in breast cancer treatment. Additional products under development, which are within the field of cancer treatment and medical imaging, will widen our addressable market.

DB: What have been some key milestones and watershed moments?

Pollock: Here are seven of the big ones…

  1. Completing seed capital raise in a round led by Sydney Seed Fund in 2015: In addition to providing us with the funds necessary to start realising our goals for the Breathe Well medical device, it cemented the company as a reality for me, providing me with a job to throw myself into following the completion of my PhD.
  2. Receiving a Building Partnerships grant from Jobs for NSW: Partnering with pilot centres through the grant allowed us to gain a huge amount of clinical input by involving them in the prototyping phase.
  3. Participating in the NSW Health Medical Device Commercialisation Training Program in 2015: Some of the cancer centres we engaged during the program would go on to become our first customers and we pivoted the technology, based on their insights, to address a more pressing clinical need. Breathe Well was originally developed to help patients replicate a sinusoidal-type pattern of breathing. However, centres told us this was more of a nice-to-have than a must-have. They considered deep breath holds a far more important use of our technology, especially for breast cancer patients.
  4. Receiving a $1.3 million grant from NSW Health via the Medical Devices Fund in 2016: The funding provided us with a clear runway to achieve our goals of launching both in Australia and internationally while enabling us to bolster our technical and clinical standing through new hires.
  5. Bringing Michael Lunoe on board as our CEO (2017): Our founding team was made up of engineers and scientists, which left a gap in our skillset when it came to the business and manufacturing side of things. This has been filled by Michael. His background in developing and manufacturing advanced electro-mechanical technologies in multi-national companies is invaluable to Opus Medical, and his areas of expertise – scaling up production, sales, and international distribution – perfectly aligns with our ambitions for the company.
  6. Securing Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval: This recent development has given us licence to sell the Breathe Well device in the Australian and American markets.
  7. Seeing Breathe Well used in the treatment of patients: By transitioning from a medical research team to a medical device company, we’ve been able to help people on a much larger scale. Breathe Well is now being used to improve breast cancer treatment outcomes for dozens of patients across multiple cancer centres.

DB: Was the transition from student to startup founder difficult?

Pollock: Year 10 commerce was, at the time, the extent of my business acumen, so I certainly faced a steep learning curve! The USYD startup programs Genesis and Incubate were both helpful first steps in transitioning into the business world. The NSW Health Medical Device Commercialisation Training Program also played a huge role in moving me along the curve.

The same goes for Cicada Innovations –  the deep tech incubator has been a great source of ongoing mentorship, which keeps Opus Medical pointed in the right direction, and there’s peer support from other medtech startup founders navigating similar challenges. Being a portfolio company at Cicada (since 2015), we also receive access to their workspace, advice about funding opportunities and an extensive network of deep-tech talent to tap into.

Of course, the startup journey is an ongoing learning experience – just as you get the hang of a task, the company grows into a new phase of development, requiring you to pick up and put to use entirely new skills. New challenges constantly spring up but that keeps things interesting. Ultimately, applying new learnings to drive the company forward is very rewarding, especially as we’re striving to make a real-world difference. It’s been a wild ride so far. 

DB: What mindset has helped position the startup for success?

Pollock: For me, it’s been a bit of a balance between (i) attempting to learn new things and taking a deep dive into new areas, and (ii) accepting the limitations of where my knowledge lies and taking the advice and experience of those much more knowledgeable in those areas.

DB: Looking ahead, how do you plan to continue growing Opus?

Pollock: The number of radiation therapy centres in Australia has doubled over the last ten years; however, the local market remains fairly small by international standards. As such, we’re looking abroad to achieve our growth targets.

Our first stop is the US, where our team is well connected and where clinical trials are already generating a groundswell of interest for Breathe Well. We will then release into the European market in early 2019 and planning is underway for the Middle East and Asia.

I’m also excited about our product map and the fact that we’ll be creating some new position in the coming months to round out our team of 5 full-time employees.