WHY FOCUS IS BOTH AN ASSET AND A CHALLENGE FOR THIS STARTUP
Onkos Surgical, based in Parsippany, N.J., just hired its 34th employee, each one carefully chosen to support the medical technology company’s very specific mission to shake up the orthopedic oncology space.
“The marketplace has been neglected for so long that there’s almost an acceptance of the status quo, and our goal is to agitate and disrupt that,” said CEO Patrick J. Treacy, who co-founded Onkos in 2015 with Antony Koblish and Adele Oliva and spent much of his career in management positions at large healthcare companies.
The startup is rolling out a concierge service for orthopedic oncology surgeons to develop personalized solutions for patients using 3D printed implants, instruments, and models, modular segmental systems, and regenerative biologics. The interactive process, which allows surgeons to share patient imaging and other information, is expected to lead to improved outcomes for patients.
In an interview with Ashton Tweed, Mr. Treacy explains how finding the right employees and focusing on what he refers to as Onkos’ “why” are paving the way to success:
How did you become interested in surgical oncology?
I started in orthopedic oncology as a design engineer right out of Lehigh University where I did my graduate work. I built relationships with surgeons in this area early in my career and, at the time, companies in the space were driving innovation. As time went on, the influx of the baby boomer generation’s demand for total hip and knee replacement forced the larger players to focus solely on total joint replacement. For the past 15-20 years, I wasn’t able to give surgical oncology the attention that the orthopedic oncology surgeons and patients certainly deserve.
Onkos appears to be focused on acquiring assets that other companies aren’t developing. How does your business model work?
In today’s environment, raising capital to build something absolutely from scratch is a very, very difficult thing to do. Many investors in venture capital aren’t necessarily looking to invest in the longer term, or take a risk on a pre-revenue company. The model that we put together in order to get into this quickly and establish a foundation to build something is what we refer to as “specialty med-tech.” I have to give Tony Koblish credit for coining that term.
It’s not unlike specialty pharma, where big pharmaceutical companies need a billion-dollar opportunity to drive growth and earnings. If they have a drug on the shelf that is somewhere in the $100 million range, they’ll often spin it out, put some attention behind it with sales and marketing efforts, and grow that.
So, we took a similar approach. We could design our way into the musculoskeletal oncology market from scratch—we knew what the marketplace was looking for, we knew what the surgeons wanted, and we knew we had the ability to assemble the team—but it was just an issue of time and being able to raise the money to do that. Instead, we talked to numerous companies that had assets we could pull together to form the nucleus of what became Onkos. One of the first assets we pulled for this specialty med-tech business model was MicroPort Orthopedics, which had a line that included segmental prostheses for patients with bone cancer. I asked the then-CEO if he would sell us this line, and he very quickly said yes. I had asked him how he could answer so quickly, and he said that if MicroPort was going to win in the U.S. marketplace it was going to be in the primary hip and knee sector.
So, it wound up being a great deal for MicroPort and a great deal for us because we were able to grab an asset to jumpstart our company, and they extracted value from an asset that they weren’t going to focus on. It was a really great win-win deal to get us into the space quickly.
What have been Onkos’ biggest challenges so far?
It’s speed because, in general, time is not our friend. We have to move quickly. It’s also focus because there’s so much opportunity in the musculoskeletal oncology space. It’s really been void of innovation for 15 or 20 years and there’s so much to do. Our customer group is very, very excited about what Onkos is doing and we get a lot of different suggestions about where to take the company. So, we really need to make sure that we remain hyper-focused on what our vision is and not get distracted because there are millions of different things that we could develop. Our vision is to build a portfolio that would satisfy all of the musculoskeletal oncologists’ needs.
That’s a pretty big goal.
It is, and we believe that we’re well on our way to achieving it. So, if you’re an orthopedic oncologist and you need to resect a bone tumor and replace that bone, the big orthopedic companies have—as do we—the implants to replace that removed or resected bone. However, there are a lot of other surgical procedures that the big orthopedic companies don’t address. For instance, very few address the fact that there are three to four times more soft tissue tumors than primary bone tumors because it’s not really the focus of big orthopedic companies. Onkos is building a concierge-type service called uDesign™ to be a “one-stop” to support all of orthopedic oncologists’ surgical needs.
How does uDesign™ work?
We offer the uDesign™ service to plan with the surgeon using the patient’s imaging studies—whether it’s X-rays or CT—in order to have the appropriate implants and drive efficiency in the operating room. All of our implants are fully modular so it’s kind of like an Erector Set. The parts that attach the implant to the bone come in various sizes with the ability to make them longer or shorter, and there are different joint designs. Everything is available to give the surgeon intraoperative flexibility and efficiency in the operating room.
What do surgeons think of uDesign™?
We just met with a group of surgeons and they love it. There are a lot of potential implants and instrumentation that could be used, so to be able to narrow that down potentially makes the procedure go much easier and faster. So far, it’s been very well received.
It sounds like you have a lot on your plate. What’s been your biggest, most important decision so far as CEO?
Maintaining absolute focus. We have to maintain our focus on driving and growing the business but, at the same time, not taking our eye off fostering the innovation that will allow Onkos to grow into what we want it to be.
We get a lot of requests to focus on the revision and trauma markets, which are outside of the orthopedic oncology space. And that’s fantastic—we are thrilled to be able to support those surgeons. However, we believe that we can bring the most impactful products to market if we look at these challenges through the eyes of surgical oncologists. We believe that if we diligently maintain our focus in orthopedic oncology, the products that we bring to market will also support others surgeons, as well.
How do you encourage innovation among your employees?
Because we’re a startup that’s hyper-focused, when we’re interviewing people we clearly let them know that we’re not just hiring them for a job. Yes, we have a written job description, and they’ll have very specific responsibilities, but we let every single person we hire know that they’re joining us to be a leader in this company—and it’s not just possible, it’s actually expected. And we let them know we’re not just looking for product innovation. We’re driving innovation in the method in which we distribute the product and on the marketing side and how we educate customers. It’s a heck of a lot of fun to hire super talent and just let them run.
Do you have any difficulty finding people who are the right fit for Onkos?
Certainly. And I’ve probably talked as many people out of joining us on this journey as I’ve hired.
A lot of folks with some great experience who’ve worked in larger organizations may not be comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s really important that they understand we don’t have a multi-billion-dollar backstop. It’s the people on this team who are crucial to the success of the overall organization and our plan. So, it’s really important that everyone be comfortable knowing that they’ve got a lot of responsibility, and they can take it and run with it. We make that clear in the hiring process.
Building our company culture starts with what we refer to as our “why.” We don’t talk as much about our mission or our vision, but, rather, our “why”— why we do what we do. And that’s a big part of the interview process, as well, explaining that if we were to build a big, financially successful company but we don’t impact actual patient outcomes, we don’t drive more awareness of primary bone tumors and musculoskeletal oncology, then we will not be meeting our long-term goals.
What’s next for Onkos?
Cost is going to continue to be paramount in the technologies we bring to market. We believe that with the tools we’re now developing, Onkos will be the youngest med-tech company with the broadest 3D-printed portfolio within the next two years. With our ability to drive personalized medicine, we have several projects underway right now that we will be submitting to the FDA for clearance, involving a range of sizes or a spectrum of implants that you can then personalize for individual patients. These products will be transformative and drive personalized or precision medicine to patients.
We’re also planning to make an impact on infection in this area. Infection is a terrible, terrible complication for a patient that has just had a bone tumor removed. It’s probably surgeons’ single biggest fear other than a local recurrence of the cancer. Infection unfortunately often leads to amputation. So, we’ve got a partnership to develop a technology focused on the potential to reduce infection that we’ll be looking to get to the FDA later this year.
You’ve scaled the company very quickly. What advice would you give other startups that want to do the same thing?
First, find the right opportunity. If there truly is an opportunity, find it, recognize it, and vet it. Second, build a team. Everybody that pulls into the parking lot here every day could find a job someplace else with a big company or do something else. For example, one of our quality associates had the opportunity to work for one of the big multinationals, and about five months in I had asked her if she thought she made the right decision joining Onkos. And she just beamed and she said, “Yes, I did. If I was at one of those big companies, I would have a very small purview on the overall quality system.” She’s been able to get involved in so much, and so broadly, that she’s very much enjoyed her time here. So, you need to find those people that are willing to give it all and join you on that journey.
Ashton Tweed would like to thank Patrick Treacy for this interview. If your company needs help from members of the Ashton Tweed Life Sciences Executive Talent Bank, we can supply that assistance either on an interim or a permanent basis. Additionally, if you are among the many life sciences professionals affected by the changes in the industry, Ashton Tweed can help you find the right placement opportunity — from product discovery through commercialization at leading life sciences companies — including interim executive positions and full-time placements. In either case, please email Ashton Tweed or call us at 610-725-0290. Ashton Tweed is pleased to continue to present insightful articles of interest to the industry.