Jeff Vinik invests in Israeli-Tampa company that makes radiation protection wear

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TAMPA — Jeff Vinik made his name as a far-thinking investor — first as the whiz-kid manager of Fidelity’s Magellan mutual fund, then as the proprietor of his own hedge fund and these days as the owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning and a developer of a $3 billion real estate project called Water Street Tampa.

But his latest investment isn’t about winning a championship, or redesigning a downtown or building pretty buildings.

It’s about Armageddon.

Vinik, 58, is the lead investor in a $6 million round of fundraising for StemRad, an Israeli company that recently decided to headquarter its U.S. subsidiary in Tampa. StemRad makes a personal radiation shield to protect troops, first responders and nuclear power plant workers from deadly high-energy gamma radiation released by atomic bombs, nuclear meltdowns or similar catastrophes.

"A unique solution at a critical time," Vinik said in a statement released through StemRad. "With the sharp increase in the nuclear risk, there is a clear need for personal protection gear for our military and first responder teams."

It’s not Vinik’s first foray into a venture designed to keep people safe and healthy. Water Street Tampa, which he is developing with Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment fund, is being planned to include plenty of green space, access to healthy foods and a focus on noise and air quality into every aspect of the project.

Still, there’s a world of difference between smart urban design and nuclear fallout.

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StemRad was founded in the months after an earthquake-generated tsunami in 2011 caused core meltdowns in three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power complex in Japan. The company set out to develop gamma radiation protection that didn’t require first responders to shield themselves from head to toe in a way that made moving around difficult or impossible.

StemRad touts its product as "the world’s first and only life-saving personal radiation shield" for the military and first responders. Depending on the size of the wearer, the vest weighs an average of about 30 pounds and has a pair of over-the-shoulder suspenders so it can be worn on the body’s center of gravity like a hiker’s backpack.

"The most important thing is what it protects," StemRad co-founder, CEO and chief scientific officer Oren Milstein said in a telephone interview from Tel Aviv. The shield wraps around and protects the pelvis and internal organs with a core that includes stainless steel, Teflon sheeting and a composite of lead.

Here’s how the vest works: High doses of gamma radiation can damage bone marrow, leading to fatal aplastic anemia, a severe depletion of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. For the body to continue manufacture those cells, it needs some bone marrow to survive.

Fortunately, the body doesn’t need all the bone marrow it has to continue to make blood cells. The bones of the pelvis contain about half a human body’s active bone marrow, enough to continue to regenerate blood cells after gamma radiation exposure. Protect that marrow, StemRad says, and you protect the body’s "life factory." In the longer term, the vest also reduces the probability of cancer in internal organs such as the stomach, bladder and colon.

Had emergency responders worn such protection during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, "many of them would be alive today," Milstein said, "if not most of them." Instead, two plant workers died the night of the fire and release of core material, and acute radiation poisoning killed another 28 within a few weeks.

StemRad sells a civilian version of the protection vest for $2,849, though adding fire-resistant Kevlar, resistance to gunfire, a radiation monitor and an extended warranty would bring the total cost to $4,647. The civilian version provides as much radiation protection as the professional model, Milstein said, but isn’t designed for firefighting.

StemRad also has teamed up with Lockheed Martin, which is developing the Orion spacecraft for a NASA flight to Mars, to create radiation-resistant protective wear for astronauts who would be exposed to dangerous doses of radiation in deep space.

The StemRad-Lockheed Martin partnership has received support from a $2 million fund created by Space Florida, the state’s agency for aerospace and spaceport development, and an Israeli government agency focused on R&D, science and economic development.

The "AstroRad" vest will be designed and made by StemRad in Tel Aviv, with Lockheed doing radiation analysis in Houston and integration into the Orion spacecraft in Denver. (Lockheed also has a facility in Oldsmar.) Milstein said that toward mid-2019 StemRad will have employees on the ground at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for final set-up and installation into Orion ahead of its EM-1 mission.

On that mission, StemRad and Lockheed Martin researchers plan to send up two dummies designed to test human vulnerability to radiation. One will be wearing the StemRad space vest prototype; the other won’t.

While StemRad’s vest for firefighters, nuclear workers and soldiers covers mainly the pelvis to protect the bone marrow from being wiped out by a short exposure, Milstein said NASA is more concerned about long-term mortality due to cancer, Milstein said. So the company’s space vest will cover more of the torso to shield the colon, stomach, breast tissue and ovaries. The tradeoff is that a bigger vest weighs more — but in space, there’s no gravity.

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Vinik and StemRad found each other through the Florida-Israel Business Accelerator (FIBA), launched last year by the Tampa Jewish Community Centers & Federation in the newly renovated Fort Homer Hesterly Armory, now known as the Bryan Glazer Family JCC.

In June, FIBA hosted an event at the center that drew about 400 people with companies exploring business opportunities in Tampa. Vinik heard Milstein speak, then asked Jack Ross, a co-founder of FIBA, about Milstein’s background. The two met backstage after the event, Milstein said. They met again later.

Before long, Vinik had decided to invest in StemRad, and StemRad had decided to put its U.S. headquarters in Tampa. Four or five Tampanians put money into the company, but Vinik is "far and way the lead investor in this round," Milstein said. (Vinik also is an investor in a group called FBN Partners that earlier this year loaned $12 million to help refinance debt owed by the Times Publishing Co., which owns the Tampa Bay Times.)

While declining to say how much he invested in StemRad, Vinik said through a spokesman that he was impressed by Milstein, StemRad’s management team and scientific advisors, who include three Nobel laureates in chemistry.

"I am awed by the technology and its ability to positively impact the world in the years ahead," Vinik said in a statement. "The company’s presence in Tampa was icing on the cake in terms of my desire to invest with them."

The round of financing led by Vinik will allow StemRad to expand sales, marketing and manufacturing capabilities in the United States, Milstein said, as well as reach out to more first responders. StemRad already has sold vests to the military in the United States, Israel, France and Austria, as well as firefighters in Japan and several sensitive civilian sites in Israel.

Ross also invested in StemRad and has joined the company as its vice president for North American operations. Currently, the company is based at FIBA’s offices in the JCC, but that could change. It’s possible, Ross said, that the company could move to Water Street Tampa if Vinik and Cascade build an office building there that accommodates startups.

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Another Tampa investor is Dr. Bruce Zwiebel, an interventional radiologist who has served as chief of staff at Tampa General Hospital.

Zwiebel is not only putting his own money into the company — how much, he isn’t saying — but plans to work with the company on a medical version of its personal radiation shield for use in radiology labs, cardiac catheterizations and operating rooms.

A new StemRad medical vest could be in production in 12 to 18 months, Zwiebel said.

"There’s actually very little innovation in the radiation protection field out there and a very good opportunity to improve what’s existing today," he said.

The current protection is a bulky, heavy skirt and vest combination, Zwiebel said. Wear it while bent over for an operation that can last four or five hours, and over time surgeons and nurses can end up with problems in the neck, back or hips, including accelerated osteoarthritis.

"It can become fairly debilitating," Zwiebel said. "I’ve been doing this 26 years, and I’ve got the battle scars to prove it."

StemRad says some of the new capital raised from Vinik, Zwiebel and the other Tampa investors will go into R&D related to the development of the protective vest for doctors and nurses and "to continue to innovate in order to become a leader throughout the entire spectrum of radiation protection."

It’s some spectrum: War-fighting. Nuclear accidents. Space travel. Health care. No wonder StemRad has attracted an investor whose own portfolio includes everything from hockey to hotels to healthy living.

Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

Vinik backs therapy for migraine and cluster headaches

StemRad isn’t the only high tech company where Jeff Vinik is putting his money to work.

A New Jersey-based bioelectronic medicine company, electroCore, announced Thursday that two groups associated with Vinik — American Investment Holdings and the Vinik Family Foundation — were among the investors that participated in a round of fundraising that brought in a little more than $70 million for the company. The lead investor was Core Ventures II. Merck’s Global Health Innovation Fund also was a significant participant.

electroCore is working on a non-invasive, self-administered therapy to relieve migraine and cluster headaches by stimulating the vagus nerve. The company is distributing up to 1,200 of its gammaCore units across the country for treatment of episodic cluster headaches in adults. The term for this form of health care is neuromodulation.

   
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