Shark Tank Meets Spine Start Up VerteCore!
While most of the talk this summer has been about shark sightings and attacks along our beaches and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps’s race against the great white shark on the Discovery channel, there are some entrepreneurs who are quietly preparing to go head to head with a different group of sharks in the upcoming season of ABC’s Shark Tank which is scheduled to return in the fall.
The program, which debuted in 2009, is viewed by 4 to 5 million people per episode. During the show, entrepreneurs pitch their company or product idea to a panel of potential investors—aka: “sharks”. Last year, the “sharks” invested about $12 million in winning entrepreneurs.
As importantly, entrepreneurs are able to pitch their products to a massive national audience. Considering that an estimated 80% of American adults experience back pain at least once in their life, this could be more valuable to a young spine company than even the Shark money.
Paul Leake, CEO and managing director of VerteCore Technologies, LLC, one of the inventors of the VerteCore Lift, recently went to open auditions for the Emmy Award-winning reality show at Xfinity Live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and talked to OTW about the experience.
Courtesy of Paul Leake, co-founder of VerteCore Technologies
The Lift
The VerteCore Lift is a Class 1, FDA- cleared medical device that can treat many different types of back pain caused by bulging discs, herniated discs, degenerative disc disease, pinched nerves, sciatica, sacroiliac joint dysfunction, idiopathic scoliosis, and spinal lumbar stenosis. It works by decompressing the intervertebral discs which relieves pressure being placed on the spinal
nerve column and helps the body heal naturally without surgery or pain medication.
According to Leake, the spinal decompression allows the herniated material to be reabsorbed into the proper position. Patients can use the Lift at home but physicians can also keep one in their office for their patients to use during office visits. Typically, patients wear the device once or twice a day for 20 minutes.
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“The Lift is more convenient and comfortable than an inversion table. You don’t have to hang upside down like a bat and there are not as many contraindications like hypertension, obesity, hip or knee pathology and glaucoma,” he said.
“Consider also all that extra time and money you save from no longer having to travel to a spinal decompression clinic a couple times a week.”
Leake added though that they do have a screening process for the device and not everyone with back pain is the ideal candidate. Patients with hardware in their back after a spinal fusion for instance are not good candidates for the Lift.
The Back Story
The inspiration for this device came from Leake’s and his co-founder Paul Montalvo’s own personal struggles with chronic back pain. Montalvo, chief design officer for the company hurt his back during a competitive motocross race more than 10 years ago and surgeons told him he was not a good candidate for surgical intervention even though he was in constant pain.
Leake first injured his back while serving as a specialist in the U.S. Army and as a helicopter crew chief in the U.S. Army National Guard about 15 years ago, and since then has suffered repetitive injuries and chronic pain.
After years of trying to find a device or a medicine to alleviate their pain, Leake and Montalvo decided to create their own solution. Both have personally found successful pain relief by using the Lift and Leake says that a decompression session with the device will last him at least two to three days
or up to two to three weeks if he is not doing any strenuous activity.
To help raise money to fund the production of the device, VerteCore Technologies held an Indiegogo Crowdfunding Campaign last summer where they raised $421,545 and garnered the interest of MedTech Innovator, a nonprofit global competition and accelerator for medical device, digital health and diagnostic companies.
“They look for new innovative products for the healthcare community that they feel could elevate a patient-centric approach and help these companies get exposure or funding and fine-tune their product value going forward,” Leake said.
“We went to one of their pitch events in March and we happened to win the event. It was an amazing experience. Basically, you go in and you literally give a 1-minute pitch, just kind of a rapid-fire definition of what your product is and whatyourproductvalueisandwhatkind of benefit it will bring to the healthcare community and patients,” he said.
VerteCore was also invited to participate in MedTech Innovator’s 2017 accelerator program.
“We went to San Francisco for the kickoff event earlier in June and attended the Wilson Sonsini Medical Device Conference where we networked with industry professionals as well as some venture capitalists. We got some real exposure to people who are like-minded and who want to take a more patient-centric approach to healthcare,” Leake said.
The Road to Shark Tank
So, what led Leake to try out for Shark Tank? Leake said that early in
the development of the device people kept telling them they should be on the show because their product is a novel idea.
“It has a wow factor that is kind of hard to describe, but when you strap on one of our units on, you can feel it work, you can actually see it work as it is correcting posture, unloading the spine,” he said.
“You can also hear it work because of our ratcheting mechanism that actually facilitates the decompression. So, whether you are watching someone use the device or you are trying it on especially for the first time, it is like ‘Oh, my God,’ I can see it work. I can feel it work.’ That is incredible,” he added.
Leake said that he and Montalvo kept this in the back of their minds as they were developing their product. Then a producer from Steve Harvey’s FUNDERDOME, which also airs on ABC and has a similar premise to Shark Tank, reached out to them after their Indiegogo Crowdfunding Campaign went so well.
“This brought us back around to the concept that this does really have great curb appeal to it so maybe we should really look at Shark Tank and some of these shows for the exposure if nothing else,” Leake said.
The Audition
Leake approached Shark Tank two ways, first by submitting an online application and then to hedge his bets by attending one of their open casting auditions.
The application, Leake said, is a 17- page document that essentially details
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what your premise is, why you think you would be a good fit for Shark Tank and which shark do you think you would have the most conducive relationship with and why. You must also give specific information about your product and company.
Leake told OTW that the actual open call was a very long process. When the doors opened at 9 a.m. there were already 500 people in line with more people showing up as the day progressed; so, while initially the one on one pitches were meant to be 10 minutes, in the interest of time by the time Leake got in front of a producer around 4 or 5 p.m., he had only five minutes for his initial pitch.
“There was a lot of entrepreneurs and would be entrepreneurs that had their ideas that they wanted to put forward. And it was everything from concepts that were sketched out on whiteboards to finished products,” he said.
“While you were waiting your turn in the tank you can network and speak freely with the other entrepreneurs so a lot of people were taking that opportunity to try out their pitches on one another and get some critiques so they could fine-tune their pitches before getting in with the producers,” he added.
During his pitch, Leake said he emphasized the large number of people suffering from back pain today and how a lot of these conditions can be treated or mitigated through decompression therapy. Besides those patients who are told they are not a good candidate for surgical intervention, there are also patients who have failed back surgery syndrome, a term used to describe
when surgery is not successful in alleviating chronic back pain. He cited a 2010 study published in the journal Spine that found that 74% of back surgeries fail.
“Only about 5% of patients with back pain are ideal candidates for surgery but the way our healthcare system is set up, it pushes a great deal of people toward surgical intervention,” he told us later in the interview.
“Everyone wants pain relief, everyone wants their problems fixed, but it’s gotten to the point that we have this instant gratification mindset that makes us think that surgery will get us immediate results and unfortunately there are a lot of medical professionals who have the same mindset.
“And they could be the greatest surgeon in the world, but if surgical intervention is not timed properly or isn’t within the ideal candidate framework, it is just going to add to the statistics of failed back surgery,” he said.
“It is a real shame that it has gotten to this point because in our country unfortunately, there is such a growing opioid epidemic and a percentage of these individuals actually started with chronic back pain. With our device patients are able to move without pain which helps eliminate the need for opioids.”
During the pitch, Leake also strapped on the device to demonstrate how it works which peaked the producer’s interest.
“The effect of watching the Lift being demonstrated for the first time is universal. As they are hearing and
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seeing it work, everyone’s eyes widen a bit and they are like, ‘Wow!’ The agents and producers I met with were the same way,” he said.
Leake also shared his own struggle with back pain and how it compelled him and Montalvo to bring the device to market.
Once his pitch was done he was asked a series of questions not unlike those that the sharks would ask including projective sales numbers, business model and the size of the market for the product.
“I was also asked about the efficacy of the device and who would benefit from the device. I kept getting the feeling and statistically speaking this would have to be true that the producer had a family member who suffered from back pain,” he said.
After his initial pitch, Leake was also approached by other casting agents or producers who asked him more questions.
“Our story really seemed to resonate with the producers. People don’t understand the true power of effective decompressio. We have already helped so many people and it has been an amazing journey so far.”
Since the open audition VerteCore Technologies, LLC, has been contacted by Shark Tank. Moving forward they will be in a media blackout as they continue through the application process. ♦