The decision to stay in Buffalo, says first-time CEO Irfan Khan, is still paying off for him and the company he founded, Circuit Clinical. As UpstartNY reported a bit over a year ago, Khan was on the verge of moving his business and his family to Denver as the company expanded. But hometown pride, available resources, and the blossoming ecosystem combined to keep him here, and he is now flush with opportunity and excited about the future.
The company is also a finalist in next week’s 43North competition on Oct. 30. It’s their second appearance; in 2016, they were a semifinalist. Win or lose, Khan is prepared to keep the momentum going, as the company’s recently launched technology, TrialScout, is gaining industry and popular buy-in.
“Making Buffalo’s 43North finals this year is great recognition, although I believe we would be competitive no matter where we were,” says Khan. “We’ve grown as a team and had time to find our market position. A year and a half ago, I was asked to step up as CEO and work to take the company forward in both the digital and clinical directions—that’s a new vision for us.”
Circuit Clinical is an Integrated Research Organization (IRO)—with guidance from mentors and colleagues, Khan has shifted the company to emphasize its two focuses. It delivers clinical trials to doctors’ offices, which might not otherwise have the capacity to participate. In parallel, Circuit is the creator of TrialScout™ (“Yelp for clinical trials,” Khan likes to say), a platform for people—past trial participants and wanna-bes—to review and select clinical trial research centers. Research sites, trial sponsors and contract research organizations (CROs) are rated, and can also post helpful information for patients considering participation.
Khan and brothers David Hicks, Circuit’s CTO, and Kerry Hicks (who founded HealthGrades, a successful platform providing information about physicians, hospitals, and health care providers) came up with the idea for TrialScout after reaching the similar conclusion that such a resource was seriously lacking.
“Along with our wonderful local developer partners at PCA Technology Group, we got the technology online within nine months,” says Khan. That was made possible in part because of a UB Center for Advanced Technology (UBCAT) grant for $300,000 and the support of people and organizations including Christina Orsi, of UB’s Office for Research and Economic Development, and Norma Nowak, of the New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics & Life Sciences.
“Building something at home”
Khan is deeply integrated into the Buffalo community; his wife is a well-known imager at Buffalo MRI, and his older children go to Canisius High School and Nardin Academy (where he recently became a trustee). His gratitude extends to his employees and colleagues, citing their willingness to work at a startup.
“Buffalo is amazing to Circuit, and it’s a joy to be building something at home,” he says. “All of our team members could work somewhere with far less volatility, but they are a mission-driven group of young people who are choosing to come, to stay, to try and grow and build something great.” The average age at Circuit is 28; they’ve gone from nine to 24 employees.
Khan notes the energetic innovation economy in Buffalo right now, and says, in addition to funding, University at Buffalo is a key player in many ways. “I’m humbled by UB’s visionary leadership—its belief in Circuit Clinical’s ability to become something valuable for the city,” he says. “Most institutions tend to play it safe, but not UB. They’re always looking for innovative ways to take care of patients.”
He also received assistance from Launch NY. “Launch NY is more than a funding source; Lindsay Karas [COO] and Marnie LaVigne [president and CEO] are very conscientious,” Khan says. “I told Marnie our story, and she says that while Circuit Clinical is not typical of companies Launch NY invests in, they could offer mentorship. The fact that Launch thought enough of us as we were rebuilding to spend time, energy and resources made others start looking at us in a new light.
“LaunchNY connected me with an entrepreneur-in-residence, Dave Eilers, who worked at Welch Allen and is an industry expert,” explained Khan. “He has worked with young founders, and understands pitching.”
Eilers knew that he could help Khan in several ways. “I reviewed Irfan’s basic pitch and gave him some guidance on what funders look for; I also introduced him to industry connections,” says Eilers. “Circuit is innovating in an interesting space; clinical trials are hard to do, and inefficient. They are going to make it more efficient, like with tracking patients; not just signing them up and hoping they’re compliant. There’s a lot of drop-off: one out of five patients doesn’t complete the trial.”
Major affirmation for TrialScout came at the recent Global Site Solutions Summit, an international conference for the clinical research industry, where Khan and his team introduced the platform to 550 different sites in attendance. “There were sites from 41 states and 21 countries there,” he says. “When they saw TrialScout, 229 sites signed up. That’s huge coverage. We built TrialScout in the dark, and the validation that all those sites thought they needed to be on it immediately couldn’t be stronger.”
That brings up the question of scale. Khan is eager to show that Circuit’s systems can handle it, and positive that he’s created a culture where the processes and people are in place, with the resources they need for the further scaling up he anticipates.
“Seeing almost 230 sites say ‘yes’ on the first pass give me a sense that this will accelerate,” he says. “We’re also doing a nice job on national partnerships on the clinical side. This is the kind of thing that will erase people’s concerns about whether we can go national.”
In addition to the initial success of TrialScout, Khan is proud of the efforts of the clinical side of the company—they have 22 trials going on in physician’s offices across Western New York. “We are their support ecosystem,” he says.
Patient recruitment is a universal concern for research trials. Khan and his team have come up with a selfless plan to improve the experience. “We are launching a social media campaign dubbed ‘Find the 5,’” he says. “Five million people have participated in a clinical or research trial. This campaign will engage those people to talk about it, and to help find the next 5 million participants. And we’ve announced that, rather than monetize the data and information we collect, we will share it."
He cited an oft-quoted African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” to underscore his commitment to the initiative.
He has his work cut out for him. “CEOs need to learn how to manage three equally, incredibly important resources: people, time, and money. Ignore one at your peril,” he says. “There are tactical challenges—I believe that innovation is not necessarily finding something new. Innovation is figuring out small problems to solve a big one, then figuring out how to scale it. It’s being able to solve the problems in front of you while also looking five years ahead. It’s not glamorous; it’s minutiae-oriented, you’ve got to care about vision and mission. You know you’ve succeeded when X comes to market and is adapted.”