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When Opportunity Knocked, This Med-Tech CEO Opened the Door

Monday, November 26, 2018


Sometimes the pathways in life are unpredictably shaped by events happening in the outside world. Not everyone wholeheartedly embraces change, but Santosh Venkatesha, founder and CEO of Vigilant Medical, chose to follow the signs. Toward the end of his undergraduate work in biomedical engineering at Duke University, which coincided with the height of the dotcom boom, his life shifted away from academic research and into commercial pursuits.

“I graduated in 1999 when there was so much change happening – and opportunity awaiting – in the business world,” he recalls. Instead of going into graduate school, Mr. Venkatesha moved to Baltimore to help his cousin, Ananth Natarajan, MD, launch Infinite Biomedical Technologies, a medical device company. This was the beginning of his entrepreneurial life and what eventually led to his role as an entrepreneur-in-residence (EIR) with UM Ventures at University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB).

Mr. Venkatesha was initially heavily involved in the technical aspects of the startup, drawing upon his educational foundation. Yet over time he immersed himself in the business side: contributing to decisions tied to staffing, management and funding, and buttressing his knowledge by simultaneously earning an MBA from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Devising the best funding strategy for Infinite Biomedical was a significant undertaking, as it is for all startups. Mr. Venkatesha and founders Nitish Thakor, PhD, and Dr. Natarajan decided to forgo the private market and pursue grants, securing $15 million from the National Institutes of Health’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. To date, the company has earned $30 million in SBIR grants. The technologies the company was developing were too niche to appeal to venture capitalists, Mr. Venkatesha explains, yet the path was no less challenging.

“It’s a very different process to get funding through public grants compared with more traditional private funding,” he says. “We had to figure out how to pitch to the NIH and appeal to their interests.” A strategy that worked was a portfolio approach, whereby the team worked on multiple projects concurrently and sought funding throughout the multiple phases of the NIH grant process. The technologies the team presented included a neuro-diagnostic device for monitoring and analysis, intuitive control technology for prosthetic devices, and imaging technology for gastroenterology and women’s health.

Adventures in sales and marketing

Later, Mr. Venkatesha’s journey led him away from Infinite to start Vigilant Medical to pursue a commercial opportunity outside of the NIH-funded R&D process. He chose to focus on the big hairy topic of sales and marketing. Mr. Venkatesha networked heavily in the Baltimore area and eventually connected with Ric Hughen, another EIR at UM Ventures, for advice: “I was very green in that domain. You don’t learn this at business school. Sales and marketing for any business is tough because most sectors are saturated with competition.”

Startups have the additional challenge of rising above the noise of larger companies with bigger budgets, he adds. He had to focus on learning and implementing digital marketing and lead-generation tactics to find customers for Vigilant’s imaging products. “It’s fascinating how much you can do with inside sales using digital marketing instead of older methods of cold calling or advertisements,” he says.

Determining the go-to-market sales strategy was a tougher problem to solve for a bootstrapped startup. “We didn’t have a budget to hire a salesforce initially [at Vigilant] and that likely led to some missed opportunities. Now, I’m more focused on how to expand our salesforce quickly and effectively once the product’s market fit has been established,” he says. “Those are lessons I’m trying to pass through as an EIR. The real-world sales and marketing environment is much different than what I expected.”

Meanwhile, progress is in full stride at Vigilant Medical. Several prestigious healthcare organizations, including Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins, Emory University, MedStar Health and Scripps, are among customers of its HIPAA-compliant, online medical image sharing service.

Since 2011, Vigilant Medical has grown its user base and now serves over 30,000 patients annually without the help of outside capital. Recently, Mr. Venkatesha and team have been exploring machine-learning techniques to improve cardiac image analysis, a collaboration with his alma mater Duke University through an NIH SBIR Phase 1 grant.

Giving back as an EIR

Mr. Venkatesha began his advisory work with UM Ventures in the spring of 2018, responding to the UMB Office of Technology Transfer’s interest in helping University inventors who are developing ideas related to digital health software and IT. One inventor team he’s advising now is engaged in similar R&D as Infinite once was in the area of diagnostic monitoring, but with a focus on trauma patients. “I was in their shoes about 15 years ago, and I appreciate the conditions they are dealing with today,” he says. “It’s been fascinating for me to learn about their individual markets and explain the many different ways they can progress to bring their ideas to market, whether that’s through venture funding, organic growth, partnering or grants. I enjoy explaining the challenges and hopefully they can learn these lessons much faster than I did!” 

University days are but a memory for Mr. Venkatesha, a two-time successful entrepreneur. Still, he’s grateful for the full circle of being in the position to help UMB faculty entrepreneurs pursue their dreams. “Over the years I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to run a medical technology endeavor, whether that’s in the early R&D phases where NIH grants can help inventors bring products to market or in later stage scaling-up challenges, and how to compete without traditional venture funding.”