Lee Schafer: Device firms turn to larger peers for funding

  • Article by: LEE SCHAFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2013 - 3:06 PM

John Scandurra calls the traditional medical technology start-up financing model broken, and he is far from alone among medical technology entrepreneurs in saying so.

Scandurra is co-founder and CEO of Aria CV, the kind of medical device start-up that Minnesota is known for incubating. Its implantable device potentially could be an effective treatment for the deadly disease of pulmonary hypertension, and Scandurra believes that could be a very big market opportunity.

But Aria CV remains ­capital- starved two years after its founding. Scandurra has little to show for his efforts on the traditional path: early money from individual investors followed by capital from professionals like venture capitalists. So he’s turned his attention to established medical device makers.

The interesting part is that he’s making progress with the latter group, and his story is well worth following. It seems that at least part of the fix to a broken financing model will be device manufacturers stepping in earlier with money, acting more like venture capitalists than they have in the past.

Big medical device makers have long made external investments, of course. Most if not all of the largest players have big corporate development teams that manage acquisitions and minority investments in promising companies whose products could fit their business lines. What’s required — and what may be the opportunity — is a broader approach, with corporate venture capital going to promising technologies that may be closer to the idea stage than product, or something that’s quite different from existing lines of business.

This kind of venture model is being adopted by big companies in many industries, according to a 2012 analysis by the Boston Consulting Group. It concluded that corporate venture capital “has entered a new, more mature, phase” and will likely be a fixture in the financing market for innovative start-ups.

“Pharmaceutical companies really led the charge into corporate venture capital,” said Peter Lawyer, a senior partner who leads the Minneapolis office of the Boston Consulting Group.

Lawyer explained that executives at big drug companies recognized years ago that it was taking progressively more time and capital to develop drugs. At the same time, it was becoming less obvious that a new drug could even obtain regulatory approval or sell at attractive prices even if approved.

So pharmaceutical companies augmented R&D efforts with start-up investments, essentially buying options on promising drugs under development. Venture capitalists financed these small companies, too, but unlike in medical devices, the VCs knew their money wouldn’t be enough to get a product to market. They expected that start-ups with the most promising medicines would be snapped up before reaching that point.

External investing by big pharma companies has continued to increase. BCG found that from 2007 through 2011 R&D spending by the 30 largest drug companies declined as a percentage of sales, while VC activity continued to grow.

The medical device industry doesn’t have the drug industry’s innovation financing issues to nearly the same degree, Lawyer said.

“But it’s all relative,” he added. “If [device] development is taking longer, if approval seems less certain, and if prices are in question, then medical device companies can use the same logic, in terms of why it would be attractive to look at a corporate venture capital model.”

In talking with executives from the device industry, it’s clear that any move by global device makers into the shoes of early round financial investors will be evolutionary.

Chad Cornell, who leads corporate development activities for Fridley-based Medtronic, agreed that device development is taking longer and that’s hurting availability of capital. In response, he said, “everybody needs to adapt a little bit,” including financial investors and entrepreneurs.

Unlike the earliest investors in a new medical technology, Medtronic usually needs to see good results from testing of a new device in humans. And, Cornell added, Medtronic’s capi­tal is not available simply out of some implied obligation to fund device innovation, as “we will invest in the things we find strategically interesting.”

Aria CV’s device is designed to treat a condition that is hard to diagnose and has no known cure, although there are drugs available that help patients. Pulmonary hypertension is a form of high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs that can lead to heart failure.

Sounds like the very sort of area that would be of strategic interest to the large cardiovascular device makers here in Minnesota.

Aria CV has had good results from animal testing, but it doesn’t have the human test data that corporate investors usually want. Funding initial device usage in humans is part of why it needs capital.

But even at this early stage Scandurra has found corporate investors more receptive to Aria CV than financial investors. He’s clearly weary after two years of bootstrapping, but Scandurra also said he remains optimistic as Aria CV gets close to a funding commitment, although he declined to offer information on deal terms or the parties. If Scandurra’s optimism is well-founded and he obtains a commitment from a corporate investor, lining up other investors should be much easier.

“I just got rejected by a big company, and they said, ‘You’re too early for us,’ ” Scandurra said. “Whenever I hear that, I know that they assume that there are other sources of capital.”

 

lee.schafer@startribune.com • 612-673-4302

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