VentureWell Brings Med Tech Acceleration Program to TechTown Detroit

When TechTown Detroit co-hosted a med health summit earlier this year, it was intended to foster collaboration, highlight companies in the sector, and break down silos to advance the regional ecosystem.

That work is starting to pay off. VentureWell , the Hadley, MA-based nonprofit med tech accelerator, was in Detroit earlier this summer to run the weeklong Aspire incubation program, which is designed to help push big, problem-solving ideas closer to market.

VentureWell chose 11 startups from across the world, including some from Michigan, and spent a few days at TechTown coaching and prepping them to meet with potential investors or partners, while simultaneously introducing them to Detroit’s tech ecosystem.

VentureWell’s mission, says vice president of strategic development Heath Naquin, is nurturing early-stage med tech startups that are expected to have a big social impact. In addition to incubation, the organization also awards grants, sponsors startup competitions, and works with universities to conduct I-Corps training.

The Kaufman Foundation, one of VentureWell’s main partners, asked the organization to come up with a new model to help promising startups determine what’s preventing them from finding investors and moving forward, Naquin says. The Aspire program is the result, and Kaufman remains Aspire’s primary underwriter.

Naquin describes Aspire as a series of “high-touch discussions” and workshops with local and national experts, such as the technology scout for Novo Nordisk and the head of Johnson & Johnson’s JLabs, around what he calls the failure tipping point.

“We look at what will kill the company and make it fail, and we try to get ahead of that,” Naquin says. “We put them through stress tests, like a cease and desist letter or a patent troll. Companies go through the program and create a due diligence package suitable to pitch to any investor. We can also help syndicate a deal or make small investments if it’s useful. There’s no demo day—it’s all about work.”

Naquin calls the Aspire program “highly selective,” and says participants are often I-Corps alumni or the recipients of an SBIR grant, and most have already raised $50,000 to $500,000. (VentureWell does not take a percentage of equity from the startups it works with; instead, it charges them a small fee to participate.) “We judge them based on our ability to help them move forward,” he adds.

The program was not just meant to showcase med tech startups—it also put the spotlight on Detroit itself. “We hope, by bringing in outside companies, to showcase Detroit as a landing pad and place to do business,” Naquin says. “In talking to the Kaufman Foundation, they wanted to focus on the Midwest and go places where we can add value. When we visited in April, we realized Detroit has a lot of opportunity and a lot of assets to promote to outside companies.”

It’s these assets—Naquin cites Wayne State University and TechTown, the University of Michigan, the Henry Ford Health System, and the New Economy Initiative as examples—that could be “mobilized in a really unique way,” he says.

“The city is sort of edgy, sort of cool,” Naquin says. “As it’s growing, it could be attractive to global companies that need to set up a North American presence. There are more places for startups in Detroit than on the Coasts, but the challenge is the simple lack of awareness, both nationally and internationally.”

Naquin says he was impressed with the number and variety of local experts who volunteered their time as VentureWell was exploring Detroit. “It’s very refreshing to go somewhere and, because they love the city, they’re going to help make this happen,” he says.

VentureWell runs events according to sector rather than geography. In September, the organization will return to Detroit to incubate sustainable design startups at NextEnergy before heading to Seattle in December to focus on life sciences.

For more on the companies who came to Detroit to take part in the Aspire program, see … Next Page »

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Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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