In the world of health care, research is the heart of innovation. Physicians and other medical professionals strive to develop and perfect pharmaceuticals and medical devices that make life easier, more comfortable and, in many cases, longer for patients throughout the world.
However, these professionals generally aren’t among the best businessmen on the block. Though they are entrepreneurs, their expertise is in the healing arts, and they often need help identifying and convincing corporate partners to invest in the fruits of their labor and eventually make their products available to the public.
The help they require is being provided through a 28-week program launched in September by the MUSC Foundation for Research Development and The Harbor Entrepreneur Center in Charleston. Through classroom work, networking with their peers and mentoring with successful business leaders, PriMed is teaching the representatives of participating companies how to make their products attractive to potential partners.
“We help them package their company to get in front of investors,” said Christine Dixon Thiesing, associate director, Business Development & Licensing, with the MUSC Foundation for Research Development. “There was a need for this within MUSC but also within the medical community. We bring together everyone to build opportunities in Charleston, to help them know what they don’t know.”
Representatives from seven companies will meet for two hours each week, attending lectures and participating in group discussions one week and meeting with mentors the next. With no funding for the program, instructors and mentors are all contributing to the Charleston-area health care community as volunteers.
“A lot of people are passionate about building up the life sciences industry here,” Thiesing pointed out.
According to Thiesing, 14 companies applied to participate in the PriMed program, which is open to entrepreneurs both inside and outside the Medical University of South Carolina. The seven that were chosen include Bionesys, LLC; CanCure LLC; Flow MedTech, Inc.; Keith Kirkwood; Neuroene Therapeutics, LLC; Southern Charm Pharmaceuticals; and Stroke Prevention Systems, LLC.
Thiesing said the PriMed participants were chosen based on the following criteria: stage of development, the company’s ability to move the business to the next level, innovation and compatibility with a mentor.
At Neuroene, Sherine Chan and James Chou, assistant professors in the MUSC Department of Drug Discovery and Biomedical Services, are developing a drug to help patients deal with epilepsy. Chan was quick to point out that science, not business, is their forte.
“We are not business people,” she commented. “We hope to learn more about starting a business and meet other people who are in the same boat as us. Hopefully we can develop our business.”
Chan pointed out that the drug discovery process can take 10 to 15 years, adding that she and Chou eventually plan to partner with a big pharmaceutical company “who will take it to tat next step.”
Christine Hang, chief executive officer of Flow MedTech, helped develop a device to prevent strokes suffered by hospital patients with an irregular heart rhythm condition known as atrial fibrillation. The condition can spawn blood clots that travel to the brain and cause strokes. Hang said the device could be in use by the year 2020.
“The PriMed program helps us connect with investors who have experience in the medical device sector,” Hang said. “Right now we are looking at opportunities for licensing, which will allow us to let big companies help us further.”
A product that deals with similar medical issues is being developed by another PriMed participant. Stroke Prevention Systems is owned by brothers Alex and Mike and father Michael Zhadkevich.
Alex Zhadkevich explained that in all heart surgeries, particles break loose and float to the brain, causing some degree of stroke. One device the family business is developing is a collar with very small inflatable balloons that direct the particles to other parts of the body rather than the brain, where they don’t cause any damage.
He said he hopes to reach two goals as part of the PriMed program.
“I want to learn how the start-up business world works,” Zhadkevich explained. “I’m trained only in medicine and not in business. My second goal is to find funding now that we are ready to take our business to the next level. We’re looking for venture capitalists or investors.”
Among the subjects participants will study are: identifying customers; regulations; branding and marketing; contracts and intellectual property; and raising capital. Thiesing said that by the time they complete the PriMed program, participants will be able to compile a pitch deck – a presentation aimed at raising capital from investors – as well as a business plan.
Participants will be able to put what they’ve learned to good use during the final two mandatory sessions. On March 15, they are scheduled to practice their pitches, while two weeks later, they will receive feedback on their pitches and their business plans from all the mentors and participants.
On April 18, they will have the opportunity to make their pitches to the MUSC Foundation for Research Development board. The optional session will give participants the chance to have their efforts critiqued by top executives in the life sciences industry.
Even after the 28-week session is completed, many of the PriMed participants will still be a long way from actually bringing their products to the medical marketplace.
“Most of them won’t be in a position yet to ask for outside development. They still will need lots of skills and knowledge about how, what and when they need to be ready to talk with investors,” Thiesing said.
“Some of them on the medical device side might be ready to talk with investors, but you need an average of $850 million to get a drug on the market,” she added.
While there is no money in the PriMed program right now, Thiesing is confident that the situation will change.
“We’re hoping this builds a compelling case for a benevolent foundation to provide some grant money and possibly some financial funding for the companies,” she said. “We’re hoping for phenomenal results.”