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O'Brien: Finding Startup Success as a Physician-Inventor Far From Healthcare Hotspots

Finding Startup Success as a Physician-Inventor far from Healthcare Hotspots

Dr. Todd O’Brien has additional challenges beyond those encountered by most startup life science CEOs. The 48-year-old podiatrist still sees patients even while developing his latest innovation: an electronic tuning fork for measuring diabetes-related nerve damage in people’s feet. He's also building his company in Orono, Maine - far from any major healthcare hub.

So far, neither the demands on his time nor limited rural market resources have thwarted his entrepreneurial quest. Here are his tips for making it work:

Wear many hats-- Fresh out of podiatric surgical residency training in Palo Alto, Calif., O’Brien joined a small, startup medical device company where he developed his first product, learned the ropes of project management and technical writing and worked with the company’s marketing, finance and engineering teams.

“Seek out these types of opportunities early in your career,” he advises, because experiences like these allow you to “see how different parts of a startup function.” Physicians seeking to launch a life science company ought to look for other opportunities in their domain of expertise, he adds.

Heed the story of Apple Inc.-- Former PepsiCo executive John Sculley landed the chief executive post at Apple in 1983 because of his marketing prowess, but it was the legendary Steve Jobs who is lauded for the company’s success because of his pioneering inventions. O’Brien believes life science entrepreneurs have an edge over entrepreneurs coming into the field from other disciplines. Maintaining a product focus is critical, he said, because “you’re there in your field and you identify a problem and you develop a solution to it.”

Mine local expertise-- Unlike the San Francisco Bay area or Boston, central Maine isn’t exactly a Mecca of medical innovation, so finding people with the technical expertise to tackle design issues -- taking the electronic tuning fork from prototype to saleable product -- proved quite challenging. O’Brien resolved his design issues when he connected with an electrical engineer at the University of Maine and a mechanical engineer he met though a mentor.

“Wherever you are, it is essential to build a network of contacts with the expertise you lack in order to build a company,” he said.

Use state resources-- O’Brien also landed grant funding from the Maine Institute of Technology and graduated from the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development’s “Top Gun” program, which he describes as “a mini-MBA program.”

In rural markets, “make as many contacts as you can and take advantage of the resources provided by the state,” he said.

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