Dennis Wahr’s success in Minnesota began with an eleventh hour phone call. Wahr was a cardiologist embarking on his first entrepreneurial endeavor when Dale Spencer, a mentor and serial entrepreneur, called to endorse Minnesota’s medical device community and tell Wahr that this was the place to build a device company. This conversation convinced Wahr to pull out of a mortgage and planned launch in California, and come to Minneapolis.
“This is my third company in 15 years of experience,” said Wahr. His first two companies, Velocimed and Lutonix, both had successful exits. He is the current president and CEO of Holaira, a medical device company developing treatments for COPD.
"Practically speaking, medical device start-ups can’t be done by five guys in a dorm room; you need experience to know the nuances of this industry,” said Wahr, explaining his move to Minneapolis. “I was fortunate to have had great access to and support from people highly experienced in the medical device industry.”
Now, Wahr’s track-record easily attracts investors. Holaira’s $42 million raise in 2014 was led by a sovereign fund and backed by several U.S.-based VCs. “Investors invest when you have a compelling idea, a highly qualified team, an excellent board of directors, and confidence that a solid financial syndicate can be put together,” Wahr explained.
"Practically speaking, medical device start-ups can’t be done by five guys in a dorm room; you need experience to know the nuances of this industry,”
Holaira prides itself on being upfront about the realities of long-term capital needs to develop truly novel, game-changing medical products and gathering rigorous clinical data. “Simply achieving FDA approval is not sufficient. Success in today’s world requires an even higher bar of clinical evidence,” said Wahr. “Investors are looking for companies who have proven a ‘value proposition’ that meets the stringent requirements of professional medical societies and reimbursement authorities such as CMS and large insurance companies.”
"The days of easy were not easy at the time,” said Wahr. “It’s never been easy to do what hasn’t been done before.”
Even with a history of fundraising success, Wahr acknowledges the challenges start-ups face. “Getting a list of active VCs isn’t easy, but that’s where experienced mentors can help: to lend their credibility and to provide introductions to investors,” said Wahr. “The board should be more than just your investors; your company benefits from the input of people with deep knowledge of the industry and business strategy.”
Being direct about financial needs is key to attracting realistic investors and building credibility. Wahr commented on the overall fundraising climate saying, “While investors would love to have a situation where a product could be brought fast-to-market, have low capital requirements, and a steep revenue ramp, that’s not the reality of this industry. There’s an illusion that things happen that way but virtually all meaningful advances in life science have had a more realistic timeline. The days of easy were not easy at the time,” said Wahr. “It’s never been easy to do what hasn’t been done before.”
Despite these challenges, Wahr believes medical advances are occurring at an accelerated pace. Most importantly, these inventions will benefit patients and be financially rewarding for investors.