Monte Eaves: A Kauffman Success Story

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Monte Eaves is a professor of surgery at Emory University and Medical Director at Emory Aesthetic Center. He is also the man behind EMRGE, a company developing products that are revolutionizing the wound closure industry. EMRGE challenges the traditional needle and thread wound closure procedure with noninvasive and cost-effective technology that promotes healing and minimizes scarring. For this, Eaves was recently awarded the Office of Technology Transfer (OTT) award for 2017 Startup of The Year, one of many achievements. Shortly after, we got to talk with him about how he got there and the role OTT and Emory’s Kauffman Foundation FastTrac® TechVenture™ course for entrepreneurs played in helping him along the way.

Monte Eaves

Tell me a little about the origins of your startup company.

So I was a resident here at Emory in the ‘90s. I worked with one of the surgeons named Alan Lumsden and we were co-inventors of the first endoscopic vein harvesting system. Through the OTT we licensed that to Endosurgery Johnson & Johnson, and that product is still made today, more than 20 years later. It was eventually sold to Sorin, and it’s called ClearGlide®. That technology and its derivative products are now used in about 70 percent of heart bypasses. It’s really cool that one product could make such a difference, and that’s what gave me the bug.

Then I left Emory for about 15 years from 1997 to 2013. I had six additional patents that were licensed, but what I found was very frequently this intellectual property (IP) had a hard time actually getting significant and ultimately are just mothballed. I began developing the wound closure technology in 2010, but I was at a loss about how to move it forward until I came back to Emory where OTT really helped me get started and connected me to people in the community. They helped me sign up for the Kauffman course, which was quite helpful, and got me into a southeast bio business plan competition. That’s what got me moving toward creating a company.

How did you realize there was this niche opportunity for you in the medical marketplace? What was your thinking process when first developing your products?

Our technology addresses a pretty well recognized need. I actually worked for two years with Johnson and Johnson in the field; I had an inventor’s agreement with them to try and develop new wound closure technology. They were always looking for things that would be faster, less invasive, and would improve scars. And yet, if you look at the majority of the way we close wounds it’s the same way we closed wounds 5,000 years ago; a needle and thread.

I’ve been aware that this was an area in need for a while now. As I was exploring the possibilities, I probably tried 50 different technologies, trying to do it internally or trying to do it on the surface. Then one night I was thinking “Okay, I’ve really got to think outside the box. Well… what is the box?” I had to first figure out what box I had put myself in.

I started thinking, the box was that it had to be flat to the surface, or it had to be underneath. I kept examining, “If I can’t be underneath and I can’t be on top, what’s left?” Then I started thinking about Breathe Right® nasal strips and how they bend and flex. We took that concept but reversed it. This creates the forces that can push, turn, and twist tissues, but do it externally.

It’s a dynamic device that has two arcs of rotation, one opens it up and one pushes down this little footplate that’s like a strut, and between those two they create the right action to bring it all together. The process was, for me, a very interesting learning experience; when we’re trying to be creative and original, we have to figure out what box we’ve put ourselves into.

Was there any other specific event or experience that got you thinking about creating your own startup?

After a certain point of getting IP mothballed and having projects that just don’t take off, you realize that sometimes you’re just going to have to do it yourself. I think the world has changed from 20 years ago when companies would frequently use internal product development and had the right researchers and engineers inside the company itself. Now, they want to go buy innovation. These days if you want to develop technology you might have to do it yourself.

The other thing that got me interested was being president of the American Society for Plastic Surgery. I think the experience of helping to run an organization made me realize how much I enjoy building teams, having projects, bringing people and concepts together, and figuring out how to pay for it. That’s exactly what you do with a startup.

Did the Kauffman course help you decide on a direction, or did you already know exactly what you wanted to do by the time you took the course?

Before I showed up here in 2013, I spent three years thinking through the technology, filing the original patent, and building what I could with models, but I didn’t have connections to any resources. When I came to Emory, I knew I needed to move this forward, I just had no idea how. The Kauffman course was eye-opening in helping me know how to take the first steps.

Was there a specific moment in the course where you realized a startup was actually something you could do, or a particular session where something clicked?

Before the Kauffman course I knew I needed to do this, I just didn’t know how. Even just looking at the course material and its sections gave me an idea of what path to take. I went there knowing I was going to do this, I just needed guidance.

Were there any sessions that continue to provide guidance?

I think the most illuminating sessions were on regulatory processes. That, and understanding finances: what are your options, what are you going to do; that starts you thinking about what your best path is to get there.

Tell me about networking for your startup.

Networking isn’t just something that happens when you go to an event and walk around. That can certainly be helpful, but really what you have to do is just be hungry for it. And it’s amazing, when you start to cold call people asking if they know anyone who could help with a particular thing, if you do it enough, you’ll eventually end up talking to the same people again. You get to know people, and then you become a resource for them as well. It’s a two-way street.

It’s amazing, one of my biggest lessons during this process was realizing how many people will help if you approach them with humility, and often after that it starts clicking. You just have to make that call or send that email.

Did any particular speakers from the Kauffman Course stand out to you?

Tom Calloway, he gave the talk on funding. There were a couple of things he said that stuck in my mind. Like, “Time is the enemy, money is the weapon.” I thought through that several different ways, and think it is a very important truism.

When you look back, do you see anything missing from the Kauffman course?

I think one thing that could be helpful is having someone who has gone through the process like me, talking about how to do this and still balance it with other responsibilities. It’s very much a learning curve, you can get so overwhelmed with clinical responsibilities or other research activities. You have to make decisions about priorities. That’s something that would be helpful: information on how to manage it, how to make connections and get the right contacts, how to be a good partner to your manufacturers, things like that.

The Kauffmann course tells you the steps, finances, regulatory, the legal details. It tells you what to do, but if I were teaching a course, I’d talk about how to do it.

Have your experiences in business given you insight into its relationship with medicine, and how the marketplace affects the evolution of the medical world?

Both fields are definitely mutually beneficial. Part of it for me was being the director of the Emory Aesthetic Center, which is a retail medical department, so it’s a business. You have a product, you have to manage people, you only have a certain amount of resources, there are barriers to overcome. There is a lot of beneficial crossover, particularly because I’m in a management position at the center.