A Sticky Situation

Joe Landolina’s Medi-Gel offers an innovative solution to veterinary care and beyond

When Joe Landolina entered NYU-Poly as a first year student in September 2010, he didn’t expect to break new ground in bioengineering by junior year. He’d been interested in medicine since he was a kid tinkering in the chemistry lab of his parents’ upstate New York winery: “I tried to make aspirin,” he says, smiling. “I was extracting things from plants.” That same curiosity about plants and medicine has led to his current position as co-founder of a fledgling company poised to change the way wounds are treated.

“When I came to Poly, I encountered i2e—Invention, Innovation, Entrepreneurship. Then I heard about the [Entrepreneur’s Challenge at NYU’s Stern School of Business] and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I could come up with an idea?’” From a summer research program he’d completed during high school, Landolina was familiar with drug delivery and polymers. He knew that solidifying liquids could knit wounds—but existing products worked slowly and relied on potentially dangerous animal proteins. He wanted to try it with plant-based materials.

With former partner Kenny Mai Truong, Landolina found Isaac Miller, then an NYU junior studying finance and management and seeking a partner in the Stern competition. “I was looking for an idea that dealt with engineering solutions and had the potential to make a meaningful contribution to people’s lives,” says Miller. “Joe made [a] distinct impression as someone capable of solving complex problems from both a technological and business standpoint [and] I could visualize the ways [his product] could make a positive impact [in] treating the most severe and frightening injuries.”

Their newly minted company, Suneris—from the Latin sui generis, meaning “of its own kind”—won first place in Poly’s spring 2011 Inno/Vention competition. Then it won second place in NYU’s Entrepreneurs Challenge, which awarded a $75,000 first prize—and nothing for second. Except, says Landolina, “Taking second got us enough limelight to connect [with] our lawyer [and] accounting firm. It validated that the idea was important enough to keep working on it.”

The demo video of Suneris’s product, Medi-Gel, runs just 26 seconds. In it, blood pumped through plastic tubing gushes from a deep laceration sliced into a slab of raw meat. A syringe of Medi-Gel is introduced into the wound, bleeding stops on contact, and the surface is spritzed with a clear liquid. The wound appears to be filled and covered with a fleshy, meat-like substance. The video was created in one take on an iPhone. It’s remarkable to watch, especially if you consider that, according to Landolina, what Medi-Gel does in roughly 12 seconds takes its nearest competitor on the veterinary market around 10 minutes.

“In pre-clinical trials, I cut a hole in an artery, laid gel over it, and the bleeding stopped,” Landolina says. “But when you peel it away, it looks like the hole is healed. It’s not gel in the hole. It actually initiates the [body’s] healing process. It catalyzes production of fibrin.” More testing is underway to substantiate this claim, which Landolina admits may initially sound too good to be true. “I’m surprised by it every time I go into a test,” he says.

Medi-Gel’s apparent speed and efficacy at stopping bleeding, replicating skin, and binding together wounds is one wonder; another is that the polymers that make it work are grown by plants. “A lot of sugars and proteins make up your skin,” Landolina explains. “If you mimic their structures with something native to a plant, the body recognizes it as biocompatible. It’s not expensive, it doesn’t have a prion threat”— infectious agents potentially hidden within animal protein—“and in the wound it looks almost exactly like tissue.”

From a technology standpoint, Landolina says, “I’m very lucky. I made one guess, and the guess was correct.” Still, it’s hard work being lucky. To be taken seriously entering a field in which he has neither experience nor a degree, Landolina has voraciously read scientific journals and business guides on patents and intellectual property. While still a full-time student pursuing a combined Bachelors and Masters in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Biomedical Engineering, he is traveling to promote Medi-Gel at conferences. After its veterinary industry launch this summer, he and Miller hope to get FDA approval to move it into the military. Surgical and personal use are a few years off, but Landolina is “very optimistic”—and his optimism is contagious when you consider the difference his product might make in the life of a soldier or trauma patient.

For Landolina, a self-described “control freak,” the steepest slope on the learning curve was asking for help. In the Friday Forum class that he leads on entrepreneurship, he shares this experience: “I was sitting in chemistry class. I had absolutely no resources, but I had the idea. I went up and asked, ‘How could I do this?’ and was surprised to be given [what] I needed. A lot of people won’t ask because they’re afraid of the answer. That was the hardest thing to get over: the fear of being turned down when asking for resources.”

Miller, for whom co-operating Suneris is now a full-time job, says the pleasure of fostering a new company from its inception has been peppered with the everyday challenges of “preparing for all the things you don’t know that you don’t know.” For example, there was the chicken-and-the-egg problem of funding. As Landolina puts it, “We needed money to do testing, but we needed testing to get money.” Again the answer was asking for help, this time from family and friends who exchanged loans for company stock. After initial tests were completed, other investors became interested. (It bears mentioning that Medi-Gel’s nearest competitor—the one that takes minutes to do what Medi-Gel does in seconds—makes $100 million per year in the veterinary market.)

If Landolina could time-travel back to his ten-year-old self in the winery’s chemistry lab, the conversation would be about setting a course. “From a young age, I knew this was where I wanted to end up,” he says. “I just had no idea how to get here, and as a compulsive planner that doesn’t sit well with me.”

Planning or no, though, wouldn’t his ten-year-old self be pretty stoked about what his twenty-year-old self is up to?

Landolina grins and nods. “Probably.”