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Farley Center Success Story: Erik Robinson, Sintact Medical Systems CEO

How did you get started as an entrepreneur?

During my graduate studies at Northwestern University, there was an excitement and movement toward coming up with ideas and/or commercializing other people’s ideas. My professor and advisor at the time, Dr. Dean Ho, had been quite interested in this process and was also successful in gaining a Phase 1 SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grant for his own startup. When seeking funding, I was inspired to apply for the same grant, a decision which paid off tremendously. In addition to the funding obtained from the initial stage of the SBIR grant, my team and I were successful in obtaining the Phase 1B and Phase 2 grants as well.

What is your role in your business?

Although I am now the CEO of Sintact Medical Systems, I started off as Sintact’s Director of Operations as I felt like that was a more appropriate description of what I did on a daily basis. I have always led commercialization and operational efforts in the company but now I also have my hand in everything from legal, to accounting, R&D, etc.

How did you come up with the business idea?

The idea for Sintact Medical started with my co-founder, Gali Baler, and has since evolved to become what it is now. The business idea originated when we took a deeper dive into the problem of scarring and what products were commercially available, as well as how their efficacy and attributes compared to our potential product. Given the volume of surgical procedures carried out on a daily basis and the problem of scarring with these procedures, we saw a viable market for our product and believed that we could form and sustain a viable business around it.

How did your initial business idea develop over time?

I would say that the development of the idea was organic and evolved over time. It wasn't that we “have something and this will work.” It was more of, “We have this polymer (plastic) film which might be neat if we can do x, y, z with it.” We knew we were able to use the film we had to deliver drugs, meaning we had a drug delivery platform. But then was the problem of what disease or malady do we target with it—sort of a technology looking for a problem to solve versus developing a technology to solve a problem. This meant we had a potentially viable technology looking for a clinical problem. It wasn’t really until we performed the animal studies that we had that lightbulb moment where we realized we should use [the film] to prevent scar tissue formation which we were just proving through our animal studies.

What is the goal of your business?

The goal of the business at present is to gain FDA approval for our product in order to accumulate initial sales and ultimately produce a positive impact in a variety of clinical settings. Of course, like most startups, it begs the common question: Are you building a company to keep and sustain it for the next 10-15 years, or are you looking to be acquired? After speaking to investors and analyzing our business plan, we are hoping to be acquired shortly after regulatory approval and/or initial sales. This process could involve a more sustained period of sales to show that traction and/or adoption can be kept up and would not wane. In general, we are aiming for acquisition.

Who is on your team now?

I am currently full-time CEO. My co-founder, Gali Baler, is our part-time COO.

What do you look for in a team?

I look for a willingness to take on various challenges.

What are two things that have been critical to your success as an entrepreneur?

Hard work, great timing, and a little bit of luck. If I had to pick one more thing to add, it would be persistence. Hard work and persistence I would say have been the most important contributors to my success. Of course, timing and luck are very, very close behind as well.

What do you worry about?

I sometimes worry that I would have been better off doing a standard nine-to-five than pursuing this venture, or that the work I’ve done so far will not translate to an impactful industry innovation as much as I hope that it would.

What has been your scariest moment in building your business?

There have been a few instances shortly after launching our venture when I wasn’t sure where my personal rent would come from. There were also moments when I thought the business would [fail] due to a lack of funds, but incredibly, something always came up to assist in resolving those issues.

What advice do you have for our audience as they prepare for their life as an entrepreneur?

If I were to speak with a college student, I would say the following: You’ve spent the last several years in college and high school where your hard work and dedication has, hopefully, consistently paid off in good grades. So you’ve learned that if you commit yourself to an endeavor, for the most part, it would work out, turn out to be agreeable, or at least be amenable to your efforts. Entrepreneurship is a bit different and more like graduate level research. It is working hard, dedicating yourself to a cause or purpose, and then potentially have virtually nothing work out in your favor. That’s why I believe that it is akin to performing scientific bench research, where 85%-90% of the experiments you attempt will end up not being successful. However, the small fraction of successes that researchers do encounter will eventually, and I do want to emphasize eventually, lead to some interesting theory or pathway that had previously lay undiscovered. I would say that pursuing a graduate degree with a required “bench experimental” aspect to it would be more similar to delving into entrepreneurship than taking a general academic course.

Who do you look to for mentoring or coaching and advice?

People who will respond to my emails, take time to meet with me, and those that I feel I can trust using my intuition. In general, I look to those who will message me even if they haven’t heard from me in a while and those who are genuine and nice enough to want to work with me.

What advice do you have for the audience as they consider embarking on their entrepreneurial adventures?

I would ask them why they are doing it and if pursuing this goal or venture is something that will allow them to be content with the work and lifestyle. While being your own boss or working for a small start-up can be exciting and rewarding there are always sacrifices to be made in order to achieve success in this field. I would ask them to name something they currently enjoy or take pleasure in and if they are willing to give it up to be successful in their initial venture.

I would ask them why they are doing it and if pursuing this goal or venture is something that will allow them to be content with their work and life. While being your own boss or working for a small startup can be exciting and rewarding, there are always sacrifices to be made in order to achieve success in this field. I would ask them to name something they currently enjoy or take pleasure in and if they would be willing to give that thing up in order to find success with their venture.

How did Farley center’s NUvention: Medical help you, your business, etc.?

The Farley Center was instrumental in our development and our belief that we could start a company and reach success by following certain entrepreneurial rules and suggestions. Being a part of the NUvention program was a significant step that led on a path that aligned with what we were trying to do on the side. Being "put through the ringer" in a classroom setting certainly gave us the mindset of how to tackle and start a medical device company in the real world.

How did Farley’s Director, Mike Marasco, help you? How does Mike Marasco continue to help you?

Mike was a centerpiece of our interest and enthusiasm in entrepreneurship. Not only was he a central figure in putting together the programs that guided us, he also gave us early input and advice and provided us with valuable connections. I don’t think we’d be where we are today if it hadn’t been for Mike’s belief in the capacity with which we could take on such a venture. He didn’t make it sound easy, but he helped us envision our success and made us understand that we could achieve that as long as we remained dedicated and committed to our goals. He wrote letters of recommendation for some of our early grants from the VentureWell organization. Since leaving NU, we have reached out to Mike. He’s been gracious enough to make introductions to potential investors on our behalf. While we don’t stay in touch as often as we used to, I know I will always be able to reach out to him for assistance. We are in his debt for the belief he held in us which allowed us to move our venture forward.

Editor's Note: Click here to read more about Erik Robinson

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