Medical device start-up TransEnterix on fast track to success with help of UNC entrepreneurship minors

Todd Pope, Brett Page, Meg Alexander

At a time when other companies in the Triangle are struggling to attract venture-capital financing, two-year-old medical device company TransEnterix recently landed $55 million in venture-capital funding — the most raised by any area business this year.

"This is big news and we have had some of Carolina's best helping us to make it happen," says Pope.

TransEnterix CEO and UNC alumnus Todd Pope credits entrepreneurial talent and expertise from UNC-Chapel Hill for much of the company's success.

Among them are Brett Page, a 2007 biomedical engineering graduate, and Meg Alexander, a biology major planning to graduate in May. Both participated in UNC's minor in entrepreneurship, a signature program of the Carolina Entrepreneurial Initiative offered by the Department of Economics for undergraduates in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Page was the third employee hired at TransEnterix, using the contacts he met through the minor program to find his job as a design engineer. Alexander recently completed the minor's required summer internship at TransEnterix. Both have served the company during a period of remarkable growth. The company now employs 31.

UNC Kenan-Flagler's Private Equity Fund was an early investor in TransEnterix. The $2 million student-run fund launched in 2007 and is the first and only student-run fund associated with a leading U.S. business school that seeks to provide real returns to its limited partners.

Pope is a strong believer in mentoring and providing opportunity for students.

"I love taking great young minds and letting them work," says Pope.

Short path from concept to commercial

"The company has moved quickly from a development to a manufacturing scenario," says John Tushar, vice president of business development. "We have so many things going on, we say that we do things here in dog years."

That environment is something that can only happen in a startup and offers invaluable experience to young interns and employees like Alexander and Page, Tushar says.

"Interns do not just make copies or get coffee here. They roll up their sleeves and work like everyone else, with guidance but little supervision," says Tushar.

TransEnterix was founded in 2006 by Synecor LLC, a business accelerator based in Durham, to develop a medical device system that allows surgeons to perform scar-free, minimally invasive laparoscopic abdominal surgeries. Called the Single Port Instrument Delivery Extended Reach (SPIDER) System, it recently received clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and won the Innovation of the Year award from the Society of Laparoendoscopic Surgeons in September.

TransEnterix will use its new funds to manufacture and market the device, which Pope hopes to have on the market by spring of 2010. He expects to have 80 employees by the end of 2010.

Entrepreneurship minor students well matched for startup

Page graduated with UNC's first class of minors in entrepreneurship and describes his experience as ideal for his work at TransEnterix.

"I had a strong science background, but my passion was for taking research into the marketplace," says Page. "When I heard about the minor in entrepreneurship, I signed up immediately and shifted my whole schedule to accommodate the classes. It was totally worth it."

The minor's core curriculum and his biomedical engineering classes built on each other to give Page what he needed to work in a startup environment. "The minor classes taught me how to translate my technical learning into the real world," Page says. He also credits the contacts he made through the minor with connecting him to the people at Synecor who were creating TransEnterix.

Alexander was interested in both business and biology when she took a freshman seminar class in entrepreneurship with Buck Goldstein, UNC's entrepreneur-in-residence and senior lecturer in economics, who teaches in the minor.

"The seminar really spurred my interest in the minor but I couldn't major in business and minor in entrepreneurship. So I took a leap of faith and majored in biology while taking the entrepreneurship minor," Alexander says. She has not been sorry.

"With the minor I've learned to take my own ideas and make them work," she says. Alexander cites her participation in the Carolina Challenge business-plan competition as invaluable to her experience, as well as the minor's required internship, which led her to TransEnterix.

Alexander's work at TransEnterix has included creating a competitive assessment for potential investors, developing a marketing plan, conducting pricing research and developing a product launch timeline.

"My experience at TransEnterix has been amazing. I've done so many things. It's been an incredible opportunity," she says.

Environment supports innovation

Sal Castro, vice president of research and development, sees the entrepreneurial environment at TransEnterix as a two-way street. "The environment here provides a lot of experience for interns and young employees but it also lends itself to innovation, which benefits the company," says Castro, who uses his experience with Brett Page as an example.

"Brett is a big part of our success. He's not afraid to try new things and he's willing to learn from mistakes, which is the best way to learn. The entrepreneurial environment here encourages that sort of thinking," Castro says.

Castro, a veteran of three startup companies, adds that sufficient financial backing is critical to a creative environment. "A lot of companies are afraid to spend money on 'mistakes,' which stifles development. But TransEnterix has the backing of a CEO and a board that understands the entrepreneurial process. It's very exciting," he says.

Entrepreneurial culture starts at the top

Pope, a Raleigh native who received a degree in industrial relations from UNC in 1987 and serves on the board of advisors for UNC's minor in entrepreneurship, credits UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp for encouraging a strong entrepreneurial environment that reaches into the business community.

"The entrepreneurial culture starts at the top. Thorp is a believer in entrepreneurship and I hope he'll continue to let UNC be a leader in spreading an entrepreneurial culture," said Pope. TransEnterix will support that culture in any way it can, particularly through continued involvement with the internship program, Pope says.

"The interns are so fortunate to experience the day-to-day, nimble working environment of a startup," Pope says, "and we are so fortunate to have them."