A team of Clemson bioengineering students had an idea for a new medical device to improve rotator cuff surgery. But they had no idea how to take it to the next level. How could they find someone to coach them through a business startup? Who could give them the legal help they needed to file for a patent? Where could they attract interested investors?
They found their answers at the DEN, the Design and Entrepreneurship Network, a program at Clemson’s College of Engineering and Science created to foster innovative ideas and budding companies by bringing together students, faculty and experienced business owners to act as sounding boards and mentors.
The students now have a provisional patent on their device and the support of renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. Richard Hawkins, cofounder of the Steadman Hawkins Clinic.
“This is a phenomenal product they’ve come up with,” Hawkins told The Greenville News. “It’s very exciting.”
Nicholas Marais, the graduate research assistant who led the student team, said the process was “hugely helpful.”
“I don’t know if we would have continued without The DEN,” he said.
Filling a gap
The DEN is the brainchild of Bre Przestrzelski, a 24-year-old bioengineering doctoral student and graduate of Charles D. Owen High School in Asheville, North Carolina.
As part of a fellowship program, she was tasked with making a change on campus relating to innovation and entrepreneurship. She saw a need for a way to help students grow their fledgling ideas into businesses.
And with the support of her advisor, bioengineering professor John DesJardins, they founded the DEN last January to fill that gap.
“We’re all there just to help each other,” she said. “I have a great network within the Clemson bioengineering department who supported me in all this.”
DesJardins said the DEN is open to all students on campus who want to learn about entrepreneurship, explore business ideas and network with the community.
“It’s one of those things where if you have a great idea and never share it,” he said, “it won’t go anywhere.”
The DEN is made up of about 35 students who meet weekly to give their input on ideas their fellow students pitch Shark Tank-style. Ideas have been as varied as textile development and social media applications, Przestrzelski said.
“We get together and have progress updates on what we’re doing,” she said. “Getting that feedback is very important so they know whether they’re going in the right direction.”
DesJardins said there are many business leaders anxious to re-engage in an academic or mentorhsip process, and also in investing, who want to help.
Among them is John Warner, a Clemson grad who in the 1990s founded Capital Insights with $15 million from 150 wealthy Greenvillians to invest in start-ups, such as Earth Fare, which grew to 15 stores and was sold in 2005 to a private equity firm.
“It is fun to be with a group of people who are all struggling in the same way, trying to figure out how to make the world a better place,” he said of the DEN. “We’re all kindred spirits. I get where they’re coming from.”
Warner, who confesses that his blood runs orange, decided to get involved to help students be successful, to give back to his alma mater, and to find potential businesses to nurture.
Along with fellow Greenville businessman Brian McSharry, the two already have invested in one company started by a student and faculty member, Accessible Diagnostics, that produces ink-jet printers to make low-cost glucose test strips for diabetics.
“I have an eye out for the next successful company,” he said. “If I don’t find it, that’s OK. Being there and helping is fine.”
Warner says he’s “frank to a fault,” letting students know when their ideas have potential, and when they don’t.
“I have an immense amount of respect for all the students who have self-selected into the DEN to do something entreprenterial,” he said. “To me, the best thing I can do for them is be realistic.”
But it’s rare that an idea is a complete dud, he said. So they focus on the bright spots, which might take them down a completely different road.
The students always are interested in hearing about ideas that failed before the one that succeeded, Warner said. That enables them to see that the line to success isn’t always straight.
“Their first idea may be a stinker,” he said, “but very few people are successful on the first try.”
Przestrzelski said that in addition to the opportunity to present an idea, the DEN has had guest speakers and workshops to help the students develop professionally and make their ideas more marketable.
“Last semester, we had a negotiations workshop where people came in and discussed the power of negotiation,” she said. “We’ve had entrepreneurs and venture capitalists and next ... an attorney discussing the challenges that many start-up businesses have. It’s an electric environment.”
The DEN also helps students hone their public-speaking skills.
“One student in the College of Business and Behavioral Science said that before joining the DEN, she was scared to get up in front of an audience and present anything,” she said. “But she became very comfortable .... and told me that without the DEN, she would still be terrified to get up in front of an audience.”
Though she has a notebook full of ideas of her own, Przestrzelski hasn’t pitched any in the DEN yet.
“I think the DEN itself is a start-up,” she said. “It’s exciting to see what the students bring into the DEN, the ideas they’ve had in their own little notebooks and always wanted to explore.”
So far, the DEN has produced about six active business ideas, and two companies have been formed, said DesJardins. But others are sprouting.
“We have a group right now that’s really interested in innovations in athletics and footwear,” he said. “Another is working on a brace for the wrist and upper arm that prevents essential tremor.”
And the DEN is looking to bring in new faculty from other disciplines, including computer graphics and marketing.
Marais said his team’s device got its start as a senior bioengineering design project where students come up with a solution to a medical problem.
They found that rotator cuff repair couldn’t be performed in a minimally-invasive fashion as so many other surgeries are today. For the best results, surgeons need to place a graft over the torn rotator cuff, but that requires a 4- to 5-inch incision, Marais said.
So the team — which also included Ryan Gedney of Daniel Island, Charles Laughlin of Greensboro, N.C., and Taylor Pate of Kingsport, TN - developed the Insita Pro, which allows deployment of the graft through what’s called a keyhole incision during arthroscopic surgery. That also means faster recovery time.
They took their prototype to the DEN, where they found mentors they needed to push the project along. Then they came up with a timeline for their work, got legal and financial help, and to prove the device was worthwhile, entered a science competition in Boston where they won an honorable mention.
“Actually, the process was initially very daunting,” said Marais. “It involved a lot of aspects I’d never considered because I didn’t know much about the business side. I don’t think I would have been able to handle any of it without the business mentors we had.”
Hawkins said he was suprised when the team decided to take on the project.
“I thought, ‘Wow! This is really challenging.’ But they came up with this product that folds up the graft, the device goes down the canula ... and then lays it open and puts it on the cuff. You don’t have to make a big incision,” he said.
“Rotator cuffs often don’t heal,” he added. “So anything we can do to enhance healing is great.”
Now that he’s been through the process himself, Marais helps other students as well. And he’s leading another team that’s developing an inexpensive home work-out device that may have physical therapy applications as well.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “I never expected to do something like this going to college.”