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A Sports Enthusiast Advises UMB Med-Tech Inventors to Take Multiple Shots on Goal

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Steve RollerIn his youth, Stephen Roller loved learning how to improve and train his body for sports performance; now he relishes in a similar process of continual refinement, advising entrepreneurs on how to bring medical devices to market.

As a kid growing up in Saginaw, Michigan, Stephen Roller was an avid athlete, playing baseball and basketball through high school. His love of sports transcended the game; Mr. Roller was intrigued by the science behind it all. He asked questions such as, “How can I train to improve my performance as a pitcher?” Later, this passion for sports training and performance optimization defined a focus for his studies in engineering at the University of Michigan, where he earned an M.S. in 2004. “Biomedical engineering was new back then and the field intrigued me because of the interaction with the human body and the positive impact on people’s lives.”

Cutting his teeth at Medtronic

Mr. Roller started at Medtronic soon after completing his Master’s degree and over 13 years he worked across different functions at the company, including manufacturing, R&D, and project management. These years were fundamental to his career: he recalls the thrill of participating in the entire continuum of processes that bring a medical device to market. “It’s extremely satisfying to build something that gets used by people for the greater good.”

Mr. Roller, who focused on perfusion products and heart valves, remembers a poignant moment one day observing a surgery. “This was part of a clinical trial for our heart valve device, and it was awesome to see the patient receiving the implant and knowing that we had developed something that was going to be very beneficial.” The product was approved by the FDA and remains successful today.

In 2017, his wife Janet took a job with Marriott International in Bethesda, Maryland, leading the young family to pick up stakes for the East Coast. Little did he know how valuable the real-world training in medical device manufacturing would be in his next career adventure.

Entering the world of entrepreneurship

Upon arriving in the DC-metropolitan area, Mr. Roller took a break to spend time with his children. “They are three and five and I really didn’t want to miss out on those ages,” he says.  Before long he made connections with the University of Maryland Ventures group and was invited to join as a part-time Venture Advisor to faculty entrepreneurs. This was an exciting chance to learn about startups, an appealing draw for Mr. Roller after years in corporate America. The cultural shift from Medtronic is stark yet invigorating, he says: “I came from a large profit-driven company to an environment where people are incentivized around research. What I love is that we have more open, frank discussions about science and we have many different avenues to pursue for commercialization.”

Mr. Roller’s deep experience in commercialization is instrumental in his role advising inventors who are faculty members at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. “It’s really important to do rapid prototypes, so that you can fail fast and get to the right design,” he says. “Finding the best vendors to work with during this process is critical and I can help with that.” He also assesses market opportunity of new technologies, weighing that against timelines and the cost of R&D to help faculty determine if commercialization is viable.

Mr. Roller is learning as much as he is teaching, gaining valuable insight about startups and how they operate. “The big thing for me is gaining an understanding of the startup funding and budget process – and the trials and tribulations that go along with that.”

Words of wisdom for inventors

Academic inventors usually understand the overall challenges in getting a biotech product to market but may underestimate the considerable work involved each step along the way, Mr. Roller says. He offers a few tips that are important for any invention:

  1. Protect your idea. File for a patent on the invention to lock up the space.
  2. Create some proof. Pick the right partners to quickly achieve a minimal viable prototype (MVP). “That’s how you get people on board,” he explains.
  3. Don’t fear failure. “You need a bunch of shots on goal. It’s about trying a lot of things quickly and safely.” That could mean a change in the target population, design or business model. The process of failing fast is critical when you want to develop an effective, viable product.
  4. Strike a mental balance. While hard to do, Mr. Roller tells inventors to maintain both patience and persistence throughout the process.

The connection between sports and medical devices remains a fascinating and intellectual challenge for Mr. Roller. “Optimizing the body for performance is similar to optimizing a medical device for performance,” he says. “You can’t go too far one way so you need balance. Yet there are always trade-offs in performance when you work on improving one area for the sake of another.”

Mr. Roller remains physically active these days, enjoying swimming and playing with his kids. Recalling hip injuries he endured a few years back, he’s continually motivated by how medical technology can help heal physical ailments. “My athletic background gives me extra fuel to dedicate toward new medical devices, and I’m grateful for that perspective.”

Reach out to Stephen on LinkedIn.