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TTO nurtures inventors, technology into the start-up phase


By David Schwartz
Published: June 20th, 2012

EXCMR, Ltd., a Columbus, OH-based start-up spun out of The Ohio State University, achieved its current status — the release of its technology to hospitals and patients — not only through the creativity of its inventors but also thanks to the marketing guidance the inventors received from the university’s Technology Commercialization and Knowledge Transfer Office, or TCO (formerly known as the Technology Licensing and Commercialization Office). The company’s device, an MRI-compatible treadmill that allows physicians to obtain MRI images of the heart immediately after exercise, was created by a research team involving three Ohio State colleges. In addition, the graduate student who worked on the invention and wrote the business plan became EXCMR’s first employee.

The treadmill invention was first disclosed in September 2006, and the initial marketing steps were fairly standard. The first step was a market assessment to determine if there was any potential to move forward, then filing, followed by an effort to cultivate a licensee for the technology. What made the process unique was the necessary education and guidance required by a student with no experience in tech transfer, and advising the inventors that the start-up route might be preferable to licensing the technology.

Business plan competition

The student, Eric Foster, MS, ME, who was with both the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Cardiac Imaging Research Center and now serves as the company’s chief operations officer and lead engineer, says the “biggest defining moment” in the evolution of the company was the 2008 Deloitte Business Plan Competition. Foster created a business plan for the competition and won second place; the award carried sufficient funding and professional services to put the plan into action.

Foster was taking a senior design class in mechanical engineering when he met Orlando “Lon” Simonetti, then associate professor of internal medicine and radiology at Ohio State’s Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital, who now serves as EXCMR’s chief scientific officer. “They said they were looking for solutions to an MRI-compatible exercise device, we began work, and after the class I joined the team as a research assistant,” Foster recalls.

The team quickly determined that the device should be in the form of a treadmill, and the proof-of-concept work became his master’s thesis. Subsequently, Foster took an entrepreneurship class at the university that he says helped him learn how to lay the groundwork for a company by teaching such skills as creating market projections.

“We were given three technologies and asked to evaluate the commercial potential of each,” he says. “We studied what it takes to bring a product to market; we were then able to apply those concepts to our technology.”

Simonetti and cardiologist Subha Raman — the company’s chief medical officer — were serial inventors with extensive portfolios, but Ohio State’s TCO provided Foster with guidance. One of the concepts emphasized was reasonable time to market. “We had talked about a company as a general idea, but we had to really define what it took to do a start-up company and look into market projections. The tech licensing office helped us quite a bit because we were new at this,” Foster recalls. “When we ended up in second place and got the cash, that’s what really forged the path towards a company; it validated the projections we had made and the plan we came up with.”

Considering the options

While the recognition and the money may have been the ultimate catalysts, the competition was preceded by lengthy discussions about the pros and cons of a start-up. Although Simonetti had a business background, Foster did not, so at the outset they had to decide whether to invest their time in the undertaking. Foster also had career considerations: Did he want to take the entrepreneurial route or a more traditional academic route?

In addition, the inventors were involved in a large industry-sponsored research grant from a large company — a partnership the TCO helped them create. Although the company had sponsored the technology through a master research agreement, university officials helped them recognize that it might not be interested in taking on the technology alone. Being in partnership with a start-up might be a way to take the technology to market as a channel partner early on, however, so the technology would not sit on the shelf.

The TCO helped nurture the partnership through personal meetings, conference calls, letters, meetings at trade shows, and other marketing initiatives, always highlighting the strength of the entrepreneurial participants. In the end, however, the inventors pulled the trigger and decided to move forward with the start-up.

Additional funding secured

The TCO also was instrumental in obtaining additional funding for EXCMR, which actually grew out of earlier contacts it had nurtured. For example, the local central Ohio incubator, TechColumbus, was originally introduced to Foster to provide additional help with the business plan. “A big part was learning the language of business and how to communicate our ideas to a broader audience. We’re all from engineering or medical backgrounds, and we needed to make what we were trying to do more universally understood,” says Foster. “In terms of our projections, we could bounce our ideas off them to make sure they were valid.”

The company was awarded a TechGenesis Grant from TechColumbus to assess the treadmill’s commercial feasibility. It also received a commercialization funding grant from the Global Cardiovascular Innovations Center, made possible by Ohio’s Third Frontier Project.

Contact Eric Foster at eric.foster@excmr.com.

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