Jeff Millin, a seasoned entrepreneur who took his last startup to $100 million in revenue and a successful exit for his venture-capital investors, knew a good thing when he saw it three years ago.
Biomedical startup aims to change post-op care
The good thing?
What would soon become FM Wound Care LLC, a spinoff from Michigan Technological University.
Founded by Megan Frost, an associate professor in biomedical engineering, the company has created nitric-oxide-infused bandages and wound dressings to greatly reduce the risk of infection, especially in patients post-surgery.
Millin's previous company, Marquette-based Pioneer Surgical Technology Inc., a maker of metal and synthetic implants for the orthopedic, spinal and cardiothoracic markets, was founded in 1992 and sold in 2013 to Alachua, Fla.-based RTI Surgical Inc. (Nasdaq: RTIX).
"I was there before day one," said Millin, who was Pioneer's CEO.
After Pioneer was sold, Millin began consulting. "They pay you a lot for your advice, and then they never listen to it," he joked.
In 2014, he was asked to vet a range of emerging technologies at Michigan Tech to see which had market potential. And he found, in Frost, someone to listen to him. "I saw great ideas looking for problems, and I saw technologies that needed a lot of help to get to market.
"A couple of ideas really stood out. Megan's could not only get to market quickly, but it could be game-changing," he said. "Hospitals are infection factories. Patients are always getting infections post-surgery. But you put this dressing on after out-patient surgery and you don't have to have home health care come in every day and change your bandages. You're going to be free from infection for seven days. This will change the way post-operative health care will be done."
Millin served as Frost's adviser for six months, then co-founded the company with her as Wound Care's president and CEO. Frost is chief technology officer. The company, which has one patent pending, is a member of the Houghton/Hancock SmartZone incubator, with its lab in Hancock.
Frost and Millin reached a licensing agreement with Tech, put in seed funding and raised a follow-on angel round that Millin says will fund the company for the next year and a half. The technology has also won two National Science Foundation grants totaling $1 million.
"If things go as planned, at some point we'll need a significant amount of funding," he said. He has already begun to reach out to venture capitalists to tell them about the technology and let them know he may come calling.
"Jeff is a tireless and driven executive with experience leading high-growth companies. He scaled Pioneer from an emerging startup to a diversified, multi-national medical device company," said Michael Gross, a managing director of Farmington Hills-based Beringea, one of the VC firms that invested in Pioneer. "This experience will position him well to lead growth at Wound Care LLC."
Millin said the company has also signed nondisclosure agreements with potential medical-product manufacturers to help fund development.
In the meantime, there's all that entrepreneurship to savor. "Being the CEO of a four-person company is really a lot of fun," he said. "If you've got any entrepreneurial drive at all, it's so much fun to start a company. Growing Pioneer to $100 million in revenue was a lot of fun. But it ceased to be fun the last three years. It became corporate, not entrepreneurial."
Frost joined the Tech faculty in 2007. She'd earned her Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Michigan and was looking for what she describes as "the ideal place to live." Her grandmother was from Laurium, a small town north of Houghton, and had lots of stories about life in the U.P. After visiting, Frost accepted a job offer.
She got the idea for a company after suffering a serious infection following oral surgery in 2011.
Treatment for the infection required her to use what is called a PICC line for 40 days. PICC is an acronym for peripherally inserted central catheter, a thin, soft tube inserted in a vein that carries blood to the heart.
The problem is that PICC lines are themselves hosts to serious infections.
Frost was cleaning the site daily and changing the bandage and thinking about how unsanitary, dangerous and in need of improvement it all was. Her solution? Figure out a way to infuse polymers with nitric oxide, a free radical gas which has antimicrobial properties and is benign in the human body. Strips of the infused polymers would serve as bandages and wound dressings.
"It's analogous to the way bleach kills bacteria, but much gentler," she said.
In August 2012, Tech flew her and other researchers to a conference for would-be women entrepreneurs that the nonprofit inForum was hosting in Detroit.
"It was the first time I seriously thought about what it takes to run a business," she said. "It turned out I was seriously ill-prepared to run a business."
That's where Millin comes in.
The company is working on ramping up production from trial scale to market scale. "I'm really good at making it on a small scale," she joked.
Frost said it is unclear, yet, what steps will be required for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Because we're using materials that are already well understood, we may not have to have human trials," she said.
The SmartZone has hired what are called bionavigators to help Wound Care and other companies through the FDA approval process.
"Best case, we could be on the market next summer," she said.
Send us a letter
Have an opinion about this story? Click here to submit a Letter to the Editor, and we may publish it in print.