An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Ryan Fiorini (co-founder and COO) of blinktbi, which was honored in our:
Tell us the origin story of blinktbi – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
In early 2015, my business partner and I were told about an idea that was just getting started at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). The inventors thought that there might be a connection between the blink reflex and traumatic brain injury (TBI). We liked the idea, but suggested that no one would license it unless there was a prototype and some data showing this could be the case. Over the next two years, the initial 2 inventors worked with the Athletic Department at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, to get baseline data and show proof of concept of the initial design. In February 2017, my co-founder, Dr. Doug Carnes, and I received a follow-up meeting with the inventors and saw the data they had acquired. We felt that there was a long way to go to commercialize the design, but the foundation had been set and we began negotiating the terms of the license with the Zucker Institute of Applied Neuroscience (ZIAN) at MUSC.
I grew up playing ice hockey and ended up playing 4 years of semi-pro hockey in Green Bay, WI, so concussions were not foreign to me. Now that I had 2 young boys, I was able to see the need for a more objective TBI diagnostic as a parent and a patient. As Doug and I did our research, we learned that there was significant data that existed in the peer reviewed publications around the blink reflex and various neurological diseases. Knowing a device we could bring to market could change millions of people’s lives per year, we were excited to get started and form blinktbi, Inc. in June 2017.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
The biggest hurdle that both Doug and I had to overcome was that in the past, we both had taken biotech companies successfully through commercialization; however, they were all based on new drugs or new uses for drugs. This was the first time either of us had moved a medical device forward. Furthermore, my Ph.D. was in Microbiology and Immunology and Doug completed his in Microbiology and Biochemistry, so neither of us were engineers. As it pertains to the FDA, although bringing a non-implanted medical device to market is much easier than a pharmaceutical, understanding the terminology of engineers made for a steep learning curve. In the past companies that Doug and I started, he would focus on the CEO duties including investor relations and corporate structure and I focused on the technology. We did that again with blinktbi, but this time, I needed to become a quick study of how the engineering and layout of software works, as well as designing circuit boards. I enjoy learning new things, which made it pretty easy to pick up enough information to have a handle on the process.
What does the future hold for blinktbi?
We received our FDA clearance for our EyeStat device in December 2019 and planned to launch our sales team on March 1st, 2020. As we all know, about 2 weeks later, every sport and school in the world shut down, making selling a testing device to schools and sports teams pretty difficult. Thankfully, Doug and I immediately sat down with our team of advisors and board members and decided that we were going to use this down time to our advantage and start a number of clinical trials to see if we can detect various neurological diseases with our EyeStat device. In retrospect, not having to worry about sales or production for 6 months gave us the time and bandwidth to focus on our new path. To set the company up to best succeed in this new focus, we hired seasoned CEO, Jeff Riley, to lead our team. Jeff has been the CEO of public companies, managed a number of venture funds, and worked for the big pharma companies in the world. He was perfect to lead us to the next goal we had set for blinktbi. This goal was to either take the company public, or be acquired by another company in the next 2 years. To complete this, we reopened our Series B fundraising round and began reaching out to the top neurological disease experts in the world to help us choose the ailments we would focus on. Those areas turned out to be Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, and ALS.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Charleston?
This is a difficult question to answer, as when I am focused on building a company, I tend to put blinders on and focus on meeting the goals for that project. As a result, I haven’t followed the startup scene the past 3 years. However, I think it is important to note that I have started a number of successful biotech companies in Charleston and will always keep Charleston as home for my companies and family. A few misnomers about Charleston fostering startups include: there is no money available, the talent pool isn’t here, and the infrastructure isn’t available. I am here to say that those are all completely false claims. There are tons of qualified investors available in Charleston, highly qualified CEOs interested in coming out of retirement, and all the space you need. I believe the reason people believe that Charleston lacks those items is they compare the city to Boston, San Diego, etc. I would argue that in a number of ways, Charleston is better to start a company in than a major biotech hub, because in Charleston, you can get noticed. So, in short, the Charleston startup scene has been great to me, but as is true for anywhere you go, you will get out of it only the same effort you put in. If you come up with excuses as to why you can’t start a company in Charleston, it is likely you will fail anywhere in the world.
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
I have given countless talks on how to succeed in building a company. These talks centered mainly around biotech companies, but truly the steps involved don’t really care what niche market you are in. The biggest point I want to stress is to know your limits and what you are not good at. Shortly after receiving my Ph.D., I worked for the tech transfer office at MUSC. My role was to triage ideas and decide if we patent the technology, sell/license the idea, or pass on moving forward.
These 5 years gave me the experience of looking at thousands of technologies and working with companies on licensing the rights in or out of the university. Furthermore, another option that came up often was starting a company around a technology. This sometimes is a great way to build value on a technology to then sell it off at a future inflection point. The biggest issue would occur when we would form a company for the inventor and they would decide to be the CEO, accountant, Chief Scientist and head of taking out the trash. For a shell type company, it is fine to do that, but for a “real” company that is expected to grow, you must identify your strengths and weaknesses and find others to do the jobs you aren’t good at or have time to do. It all sounds easy to accomplish, but if you really want to see the company grow, you must find others to help.
My second tip is to listen to others who have succeeded in the past. I remember my first company; During that time, I was giving investor pitches for about a year and felt it was perfect. I then shared the talk with a few mentors and they tore it up and I essentially started over. Once I was able to realize what I was presenting in the past was not what my audience wanted, I immediately raised money and sold the company with my new presentation.