Pitch masters: How medical technology startup Simple Systems came out on top of this year's TiEQuest
"Do we have innovation for you!" gushes Diana Pliura of Simple Systems, mid-way in the journey toward winning the 2012 TiEQuest business competition.
In a series of judged presentations, Simple Systems, the company Pliura incorporated last year with co-founder Milos Popovic, pitched a new therapy for patients who have become paralyzed due to stroke, spinal cord injury or traumatic brain injury. The technology promises to restore voluntary hand and arm functions so patients can become more independent. "Because if you don't have your arms, you can't do things for yourself," says Pliura.
The endeavour stood out among the 155 teams who applied for the competition, the 18 semi-finalists (the round which Yonge Street reported
on earlier month) and five finalists, earning Simple Systems $50,000 in cash prizes, $31,000 worth of in-kind services and the exposure many startups can only dream of.
The surface electro-stimulation system, called Reclaim, is non-invasive and uses proprietary algorithms that help patients regain voluntary movement by "retraining" the nervous system. Pliura says the clinical data shows the system "really, really improves" patient functioning. There have been prototypes tested already and Simple Systems expects to launch the treatment in the Canadian market in about a year and, by year three, generate more than $40 million in sales.
Pliura has been involved in life sciences, pharmaceuticals and medical devices for decades and, through MaRS
and other institutions, has mentored more than her fair share of startups and emerging entrepreneurs. She's also the talker of the team. Interestingly, it was at the TiEQuest competition two years where she met her business partner. Popovic, a professor at the University of Toronto's Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering
, and a former colleague were pitching a medical technology, but they didn't get very far in the competition.
"We didn't have enough business maturity and the judges recognized this spontaneously," says Popovic. But Pliura, who has been a judge for TiEQuest in the past, felt there was something interesting there and approached Popovic.
"I've been looking at a lot of potential investments for a long time," says Pliura. "So I ask, do we have an unmet medical need? The reality is that the World Health Organization says that 15 million people a year have a stroke and five million are left paralyzed. Do we have a new technology that evidence says works? We do. Does we have intellectual property? We do. Can we position this thing to be competitive in that environment? The most difficult part of this was developing our business model. Milos has strong science and he has a pipeline of ideas. Every day he says, 'I have a new idea.' He's a very prolific inventor."
With this, Pliura turns to Popovic. "Do you want to be in the room while I talk so highly about you? Your head is getting—"
"It's embarrassing," says Popovic, blushing. Currently head of the Rehabilitation Engineering Laboratory
at U of T, he has
, earlier in his career, built control systems for planes. So although Pliura obviously brings strong business skills, Popovic knows how to position his endeavours within the broader marketplace.
"I've worked with a lot of other young startup companies," says Pliura. "Typically, a lot of the technologies are incremental. You've developed a feature and you need to sell that feature to somebody. This wasn't a feature, it was a solution. To me, that was extraordinarily compelling."
What was the secret to winning the top TiEQuest prize? Treat the competition like a meeting with investors, not like a game show.
"What the judges want to hear is what every investor wants to hear," says Pliura.
The second place winner was iGuiders Inc
., which offers a web and mobile guided-selling platform that expedites online and offline purchases. The third place winner was OtoSim Inc
., which, working with the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children, the University of Toronto Medical School and MaRS, has developed an otoscopy training and simulation system.
Paul Gallant is
Yonge Street's managing editor.