Health care entrepreneur panel highlights challenges, successes of leading startups

Event held as part of Startup Milwaukee Week

Health care and biotech entrepreneurs spoke about their success and challenges during a Bridge to Cures event Wednesday.

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:04 pm

The entrepreneurs behind several innovative health care and biotech companies talked about the challenges and successes of leading their startups during a panel discussion Wednesday at the UWM Innovation Campus.

Health care and biotech entrepreneurs spoke about their success and challenges during a Bridge to Cures event Wednesday.

The event, which was part of Startup Milwaukee Week, was hosted by Bridge to Cures, a Wauwatosa-based nonprofit organization that is focused on bringing health care innovations to market.

The panelists included:

  • Sherry Zhang of GenoPalate Inc., a Brookfield-based company that provides nutrition recommendations for individuals based on a DNA analysis it performs.
  • Kirk Prichard of ReNeuroGen, an Elm Grove-based pharmaceutical company that has developed a therapy that could help reverse the effects of stroke and multiple sclerosis.
  • Nathan Katz of JoinTechLabs, a company that is developing cell-based diagnostic applications for detection of early stage medical indications.
  • Joe McGraw of Microlitics, a company that has developed a diagnostic test that enables personalization of drug treatments based on a patient’s phenotypic makeup.
  • Michael Litman of MedSync-Rx, a company that has developed an app to synchronize medication pick-up schedules for patients with multiple prescriptions.
  • Michael James of Essential Biotechnology, which is developing a cancer-treating drug that inhibits a protein on the surface of tumor cells that is critical to the tumor survival.

Prichard, professor of surgery and vice chair of research for the department of surgery and director of the Translational Vascular Biology Program at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said the key to securing funding has been persistence.

So far, ReNeuroGen has been funded by two SBIR grants, each about $280,00, from the National Institutes of Health, and is now working to raise a $1.75 million seed round. That funding round, which is expected to close by the first quarter of 2019, would bring ReNeuroGen through its pre-clinical trials over the next several years.

“We wrote a whole bunch of SBIR applications and our model was simply: write one, send it in, find out what they like, what they don’t like, send it back in,” Prichard said. “And that’s what we did. The first year we turned in 11 grants … My advice to you is be flexible, forget sleep and you’ll be fine. Have no ego.”

Bridge to Cures, with support from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., Medical College of Wisconsin and Concordia University, has hosted Healthcare Innovation Pitch events, awarding a total of $200,000 in seed funding to health care startups in the region, in 2015 and 2017. Several of the entrepreneurs on the panel were recipients of Bridge to Cures’ funding.

Katz said JoinTechLabs was at a critical point last summer as the company struggled with the manufacturing, logistics and strategy components of the business.

“I almost gave up last year after working five years on this project,” Katz said.

He said the mentoring he received from the Bridge to Cures program last year helped “bring everything together,” and positioned them to participate in a Bay Area incubator, which ended up investing in the company.

Essential Biotechnology, a spin-out of the Medical College of Wisconsin, won $50,000 in funding through the Bridge to Cures’ first Healthcare Innovation Pitch event in 2015. James said that opened opportunities for more funding and mentoring, including awards from the Licensing Executives Society International, the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest and the MCW’s therapeutic accelerator program. Essential Biotechnology has now developed a “fully human, go-to-clinic” form of the drug and is negotiating to partner with a pharmaceutical company.

James said one of the biggest challenges has been investors’ risk aversion related to early stage therapeutics.

MedSync-Rx, which includes a team of faculty and student from Concordia University, was awarded $20,000 in seed funding at last year’s health care innovations pitch event. Litman, who has previous experience starting and selling five companies, joined MedSync-Rx after the project was already off the ground. While MedSync-Rx initially struggled to develop a quality software product, Litman said its product is now “beyond prototype.”

He offered advice to fellow entrepreneurs who are deciding to outsource tech development: “measure twice, cut once.”

“Don’t think you know everything; make sure you really have your ducks in a row before you start paying someone to do something you might not actually need,” he said.

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