Scale-up helps pro-athletes (and entrepreneurs) stay in the game
After early success with pro sports teams in the U.S., Penta Medical’s CEO returns to Canada to grow her HealthTech company
After early success with pro sports teams in the U.S., Penta Medical’s CEO returns to Canada to grow her HealthTech companyBy University Relations
Alexa Roeper caught a couple of breaks taking her HealthTech company, Penta Medical, from idea to startup to a successful business — literal breaks actually. The first came when a broken foot inspired Roeper to invent a product to help people to heal faster. The second came when a well-known athlete’s broken bone helped launch her company internationally.
“I started doing my own research on how I could recover faster because I wanted to get back to my training schedule,” Roeper says, an equestrian. She discovered that the best treatments all required patients to spend a prohibitive amount of time in clinics. “Most can’t just leave work every day to go to the physiotherapist for several hours.”
That got her thinking about wearable medical devices. Roeper hit upon the notion of creating a software-enabled, lightweight, wearable laser therapy device. She wanted to create something that people could strap on while they go about their day, have it deliver therapy and monitor the individual’s healing progress as it is worn.
Roeper, at the time a biomedical sciences student at the University of Waterloo, teamed up with Daniel Choi, a Waterloo mechatronics engineering alumnus, to design the hardware. They also employed a developer to make device software and an app to monitor the healing process.
Waterloo’s Velocity program and Accelerator Centre, as well as Silicon Valley’s famed Y Combinator, were all stops along the way to where Penta is now — an international HealthTech company supplying the only portable cold laser therapy device clinically proven to heal injuries.
But that’s not where the story ends. Inventing the device turned out to be the easy part. Scaling-up and managing a surging business requires a whole new suite of tough decisions to be made.
“What is most challenging at this stage is understanding what to spend your time on. There can be a lot of distractions and a lot of things that people pursue more so because they give the appearance of a company,” she says. “Really, the only thing that matters is product development and getting it out to customers.”
That’s when Roeper and Penta Medical got their second break — one that would put them in the middle of a multi-billion-dollar industry.
“Our very first customer in the professional sports space, baseball, had a very notable fibula fracture that was highly publicized,” she explains. “We got to be part of his extraordinarily quick recovery.”
From there word spread in the connected world of elite sports, and other teams in Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association came calling. These high-profile clients were more than just money-makers for the new company, and they offered valuable real-world test subjects.
“Soon we were working with team doctors to understand how we could use this in conjunction with other treatments, or even how they could use some of the software aspects of our product to make their process better and help them treat more patients faster,” she says.
In an unlikely move Roeper, already firmly established in the United States, turned her attention back to the same ecosystem that believed in her in the first place.
“Many founders don’t find the kind of success I did without struggling through several failed companies first,” she says. “It gave me an appreciation for the mentors whose guidance saved me money and time.”
She became one of the co-founders of the Medical Innovation Exchange (MIX), Canada’s first industry-led hub dedicated to helping HealthTech startups scale successfully in Canada. Spearheaded by another University of Waterloo alumni-founded company, Intellijoint Surgical, MIX was created to bridge the resource gap within Canada as startups scale.
“We need larger medtech companies in Canada,” she says. “We have more and more startups, but when you look towards the larger companies, they generally end up being acquired by American companies.”
For Roeper, and her colleagues in MIX, if Canadian companies are going to remain in Canada, but also scale-up enough to compete internationally, they’ll need to pool resources to build a foundation.
“Of the four founding companies, three of them are already working internationally,” she says. “MIX could reduce barriers for companies just starting out and immediately looking to export. It should reduce the friction there and hopefully help companies grow a bit quicker. There is a lot of opportunity in Canada to produce great technologies, especially in the medical space.”
Choosing to locate MIX in the Waterloo region was a strategic choice.
“I believe Waterloo region is one of the best places in Canada to grow your business,” says Roeper, citing the size of the region — large enough that you have good access to talent — but not so large that housing or office space is expensive. “Waterloo definitely shaped what we wanted to do with the Medical Innovation Exchange,” she says. “Partially in a pay-it-forward kind of way, but also in a synergistic, the more we help each other, the more help we’ll get in the future kind of way.”