Why you should care

Because her hydrogel could change the way people receive eye care.

In 2017, Niki Bayat traveled the United States on a listening tour in the service of sight. For two months, she and friend Andrew Bartynski talked with ophthalmologists, patients and manufacturers nationwide about the technology she was developing to treat glaucoma. Bayat’s travels were spurred by the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps, a prestigious program meant to help scientists like her bring ideas to market faster and more efficiently.

Those conversations upended her nascent company’s course. The Iranian-born Bayat soon learned there was another underserved medical condition where her hydrogel could have a faster avenue to impact: dry eye syndrome. And so she made a swift pivot.

As an avid runner, agility and tenacity have long been Bayat’s strengths. In 2016, while she was a Ph.D. student at the University of Southern California, Bayat co-founded medical device company AesculaTech with Bartynski. During her program, Bayat worked with a team of chemists, engineers and ophthalmologists to develop adhesives for eye penetration wounds. Her team harnessed a polymer that could convert from liquid to solid in a first-of-its-kind application to eye injuries, which Bayat describes as “the first removable glue for the eye.”

She’s got all of the earmarks of someone who’s going to be a game-changer. She lives it, breathes it, eats it, sleeps it.

Dimitri Villard, of Tech Coast Angels, on Niki Bayat

After their tour of the country, Bayat, now the CEO of AesculaTech, and Bartynski, head of product, targeted dry eye, a chronic lack of moisture on the eye’s surface that can cause irritation, blurred vision and scarring, which is estimated to affect more than 20 million Americans. AesculaTech’s personalized treatment — which a technician or physician’s assistant can insert into a patient’s eye in one minute — functions like reverse chocolate, Bayat says. It starts as a liquid at room temperature to become fully solid around body temperature, or 97 degrees Fahrenheit.

niki bayat v4

Bayat’s developments have earned her a slew of accolades, including a selection for the prestigious accelerator Y Combinator in 2018, where she completed a phase 1 human clinical trial within a speedy three months. AesculaTech will finish its Food and Drug Administration approval submission by the end of this year, with hopes to go to market in 2020.

Experts say Bayat, 33, has built a better mousetrap for an age-old problem. “Most [dry eye patients] are being treated by methods that this would easily supplant,” says Mark Thompson, a USC chemistry professor who supervised Bayat’s research. Patients traditionally had three options: Take a prescription drug, use eye drops or have an ophthalmologist insert a plastic blocker into the tear duct to preserve the body’s naturally produced tears — much like plugging up a sink, says Dimitri Villard, an executive of the angel investor group Tech Coast Angels who advises AesculaTech. But prescriptions can be expensive, eye drops require a regular application and reinserting troublesome blockers means frequent doctor visits.

Bayat’s liquid conforms to an eye’s shape and size and is changed once a year by a doctor. The device isn’t priced yet but is expected to be reimbursed by Medicare and Medicaid. The global dry eye market exceeded $4 billion in 2018 and is projected to reach more than $6 billion in 2023, according to data firm Market Scope.

Beyond her scientific prowess, Bayat has a relentless drive and sharp focus. “She’s got all of the earmarks of someone who’s going to be a game-changer,” says Villard. “She lives it, breathes it, eats it, sleeps it.”

Bayat has always thrived by being challenged. A young math and physics whiz growing up in Tehran and Abadan, she completed a year of school in two months at age 8, says Amir Bayat, one of Niki’s two younger brothers. As a child, she was fascinated by how simple pieces fit together; you could often find her tinkering with electronics and finding uses for useless things, Amir says. Her parents encouraged her to chase her most ambitious dreams and pursue what made her happiest — an attitude atypical in Iran.

At age 17, Bayat placed eighth in Iran’s national university entrance exams out of 1.5 million test-takers, most of whom were a year older. Along with local newspaper coverage, her performance earned her a spot at Sharif University of Technology to study chemical engineering. Around this time, Bayat started a trading company for European medical devices; later, she departed for graduate school in the U.S. (Her now husband, who placed third in the university entrance exams, also immigrated to the U.S.)

Bayat’s intensity spills over to her favorite pastimes: Growing up, she and her brothers often went mountain climbing, and today she loves to run (usually accompanied by Iranian rock music). “This is the only time when I don’t think about anything else,” she says with a laugh, admitting that she squeezes in gym visits at 11 p.m. or 3 a.m. on her busiest days. She talks often of family and treating people well as her motivators and metrics of a life well-lived. (Her father’s glaucoma sparked her focus on the condition during AesculaTech’s early days.)

Bayat plans to revisit glaucoma treatment once her product’s FDA approval is underway, as it could have multiple uses: While the polymer itself is the dry eye intervention, it can be infused with other medications that gradually release in the eye, Thompson says. This drug delivery tool could prove valuable for emergency medical personnel to stabilize eye wounds in time-sensitive situations when delay increases the risk of lasting damage — particularly given that between 20 and 40 percent of eye injuries on battlefields include punctured eyeballs, according to a 2017 article by Bayat, Thompson and others published in Science Translational Medicine. And the eye might be just the beginning: Bayat is exploring adhesive skin, cosmetic and other applications for the polymer as well.

But bigger corporations could beat her lean team of five full-time employees to the punch. AesculaTech can license its product to corporations after FDA approval, but the polymer itself isn’t proprietary — its patents expired 10 years ago. Still, AesculaTech does have a patent on the formulation for dry eye treatment and has applied for more. “They’re running very fast to try to build and protect their beachhead,” Thompson says.

So far, Bayat is in the lead. Credit her vision.

OZY’s 5 Questions With Niki Bayat

  • What’s the last book you read? Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell.
  • What do you worry about? On the personal side, treating people in a way they didn’t like.
  • What’s the one thing you can’t live without? My parents.
  • Who’s your hero? My dad.
  • What’s one item on your bucket list? Climbing Kilimanjaro.

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