One of the first characteristics I gathered about Tim was his profound sense of confident humility. Tim is the CEO of VenoStent, a startup who produces a product called SelfWrap, which is a custom-fit vascular wrap designed to help veins adapt to the high pressure, high flow arterial environment in hemodialysis as well as peripheral and coronary bypass surgeries. Despite this, Tim has no air of taking himself too seriously and openly discusses the highs and lows of being a medical device startup founder.
Tim and co-founder Geoffrey Lucks work together to innovate polymer engineering to improve renal deficiency treatment, with additional applicability to peripheral and coronary bypass surgeries. VenoStent was selected as a Top 20 MassChallenge Boston Company in 2019, won a “Most Promising Company” award at the Texas Life Science Forum in 2018 and 2019, and was a Finalist at the 2019 Texas A&M New Ventures Competition. They have also been awarded an NSF STTR Phase I grant, an SBIR Phase II grant, and officially closed their seed round.
In the very beginning, when you and your co-worker were at Vanderbilt together, were you polymer people who came across a renal problem or vice versa?
This company was years in the making. When I first came to grad school at Vanderbilt in 2011, I believed that I wanted to either become a director at a department of a company like Genzyme, where I worked for 3 years prior to grad school, or startup a company, but I really had no idea what starting a company entailed. At the beginning of my PhD in 2011, I was in this NSF Career project where I was tasked to create some novel shape memory polymers. We were able to establish a unique chemistry that had very interesting properties in 2012. In 2013, I began collaborating with a vascular surgeon at Vanderbilt who focused on improving vein graft patency in heart bypass surgeries, and we thought it would be a good idea to apply an external support around these vein grafts.
This hypothesis was tested during the 2014 NSF I-Corps program, where I interviewed 100 potential customers within 6 – 8 weeks to discover whether there was a product-market fit. During this cohort, we received feedback to pursue hemodialysis access first because it was an acute, debilitating unmet clinical need with very high failure rates.
After seeing some of the passion in people near to this problem through these customer discovery efforts, I was inspired to start a company to work on hemodialysis access, and I thought that this is something that I could potentially be good at. The rest of my studies were spent primarily doing mouse studies and manufacturing development, as well as entrepreneurial activities such as a business course called Innovation Realization at Vanderbilt. For this course, basically a few PhD dissertation projects that had commercialization potential were hand-selected, and JDs and MBAs formed a year-long team. We wrote a compelling business plan and participated in the 2016 Rice Business Plan Competition.
I originally wanted to work with one of the JDs and one of the MBAs as co-founders, but they had high-powered careers of their own to chase. A mutual mentor of Geoff and I’s introduced each other immediately after I graduated in 2017, and we worked together to go from the LLC to a C-Corp after being admitted to the Health Wildcatters Accelerator in Dallas.
One interesting thing I’ve noticed just in the pictures on your blog is that you seem to be the youngest one at any meeting table, which is a common theme in startups. Is there any sort of intimidation that comes along with your position?
I wouldn’t say that I feel intimidated. In a way, it’s an advantage. As an experienced serial entrepreneur, you can be a little more mystical in answering the bigger questions, but for us we really have to answer the questions thoroughly, convincingly, and in a relatable manner to establish credibility. Our technology needs to be extremely strong and compelling, both from a conceptual and a data-driven standpoint. I also feel very blessed by the grace of God, and that we’ve been extremely fortunate to get to where we are. We have people who believe in us, which is not an easy thing to establish.
Your comfort in the process seems unshakeable. Have you faced any doubts navigating the often choppy waters of founding a startup?
Well, I am a Christian and my faith in God has been a huge part of this. Because of my faith, I do believe that somehow, someway, things will work themselves out. Maybe not exactly how you envisioned it, but for the better nonetheless. I can’t imagine doing anything else right now. It’s one of my greatest missions in life. There are a lot of ups and downs at the beginning of a startup, and you have to travail through those somehow. I’ve learned to adopt the mindset that the worst thing that can happen is that we try really hard, and for whatever reason, it doesn’t work out. But what really happened? You learned a crapload through the process. I feel like it’s absolutely worth the risk, and the process in and of itself is worth my time and best efforts.
As a first time entrepreneur, there is often a balancing act between passionately following your personal vision versus accepting the input of others with more experience. How do you know when to accept input and when to trust yourself?
You have to be coachable. I try to be receptive to feedback, and sometimes I may even be a little too receptive. But if someone is telling me I should be doing something completely differently than I am doing? Then I’ll probably take it with a grain of salt. For example, if I know my product-market fit and I’m constantly learning more from customer discovery, then I understand that the learning is an ongoing process and I’m on the right track. You of course need to have a belief in the product, but the belief is based on evidence, on empirical data. Then you learn to adapt, to shift to deal with issues and problems. Maybe you can be married to certain concepts, but it’s crucial to accept new data and input from others.
With that in mind, what do you find have been some strengths you’ve gained through this process? Where have you seen the most personal growth?
When we were first getting started, we had a decent amount of industry and R&D experience, but no real-world startup experience. We’ve learned a ton about our own product, honestly. At this point, we’ve done a lot of large animal testing, which we didn’t have at the onset. We only had a lot of preliminary mouse data, some ex-vivo data, material characterization data and scientific literature to base our hypotheses. We’ve been able to build out and do experiments that we couldn’t do at Vanderbilt, which has expanded our understanding of the product we want to build. From the manufacturing to the R&D to the regulatory to the IP to all of the fundraising elements, I’ve been very immersed. It’s very hard to recreate these types of situations in a classroom setting, due to the complexities and nuances of these processes. It’s a lot of learning by doing. I established a really good work ethic during my PhD, but that’s been further tested and refined, as has my planning and execution. That being said, there’s always plenty of room for growth.
What are some words of wisdom you can give to burgeoning CEO’s?
The most crucial thing is that I really love what I do. It’s such an honor to be a CEO of a medical device company. I never would have imagined that I would be here 10 years ago. It takes a ton of hard work, more than I ever realized and honestly, your own leadership may be the bottleneck of progress sometimes. You have to be hungry to do this, and it requires consistent, intrinsic motivation. Ultimately, it is such a challenging and rewarding experience. There are some things that have to go your way that are simply out of your control, and all that you can do is try to learn from your data, position yourself in what you think is the best direction for success, and then have faith.
What is your personal measure of success for VenoStent?
Hopefully we can be successful in the sense that we can address an extremely important clinical need as well as fulfill our passion for helping people who desperately need an innovation in this field to make their lives easier. I fully believe that we can extend and save lives, and to have the opportunity to do that while also being challenged intellectually, technically, and professionally is a dream come true.
-Tim Boire, CEO of VenoStent
Alec Santiago writes for Proxima and is also the co-host of the scientific innovator interview podcast Incorporating Science. Listen on Spotify, Apple Music, or wherever podcasts are available.