Entrepreneur Builds Niche Business on Technology Transfer from Medical College

Richard Stevens’ love for science began in an unlikely way. As publication editor for various health care and scientific organizations, Stevens never imagined his degree in journalism from Ohio University would lead to him owning a medical device company. In fact, he’s created two successful companies based on technology transfer from academia, and in so doing, has made important contributions to the medical community.

In 1985, he and William Zabriskie launched Medical Advances, Inc. (MAI) – a business built on patented technology transfer from the Medical College of Wisconsin. “The resulting product provided a better picture when doing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) procedures,” says Stevens. “It gave doctors greater clarity on what was happening inside the body, and therefore, more confidence in making a diagnosis.”

Stevens got his first taste of the health care environment during college writing news releases and other articles for Akron General Hospital and the Ohio Department of Corrections and Mental Health.  After graduation, he worked at Battelle Memorial Institute – the largest private research lab in the world – and Chemical Abstracts Services before landing at the General Electric Company (GE) in 1968.

Stevens began his 17-year career at GE as a press relations specialist and subsequently moved into positions in advertising, internal corporate communications and marketing communications.  He spent five years in materials technologies in the silicone products department and became fascinated with the many possibilities for silicone and plastic in medical applications.  During this time, Stevens had the opportunity to get to know GE legend, Jack Welch.

After holding management assignments in the Medical Development Operation, Chemical Development Operation, and Components and Materials Group at GE, Stevens devoted the next 11 years to GE’s Medical Systems Group. As manager of computed tomography (CT) marketing, he orchestrated the major product introduction of the CT 9800.

It was May 1985 when Stevens received a call from the Medical College to discuss a new product idea – an accessory item to MRI systems.  Also in the briefing session was Zabriskie, another long-time GE employee with years of manufacturing and engineering experience.

The new invention was radio frequency (RF) coils – a type of technology used to enhance specific anatomical areas of the body in MRI studies, thus transforming the quality of MRI images. The inventor was James S. Hyde, Ph.D., professor of biophysics and radiology at the Medical College.

RF coils act as antennae to receive, or transmit and receive, radio frequency signals from the body. These signals are processed by the MRI system computer for reconstruction into diagnostic images. Providing the ultimate in resolution, the coils increase utilization and profitability of MRI systems by enabling faster, clearer and more detailed images that result in more accurate and cost-effective diagnosis.

The Medical College wanted to transfer their technology to a company or entrepreneur who understood the market and the customer – someone who could turn the technology into a marketable product.

Before technology transfer can occur, an institution must prove as a first principle that the technology indeed works. The “transferor” must also understand the product’s marketability. The invention can’t just be a star in the lab – it has to work in the real world, too. Product engineering is the buyer’s responsibility, as they must prove the technology is reproducible and marketable.

Continued collaboration between transferor and transferee is crucial to success, even once licensing agreements are finalized. “The “technologist” must be transferred with the technology,” says Stevens. “It’s extremely important to keep the inventor involved, as this person is a wealth of knowledge. He or she understands the basic principles of the invention better than anyone else. They know how the product was built, how it’s used, and any obstacles of invention.”

In the case of Medical Advances, the brains behind their core product played an active role in the company up until its acquisition.  Unlike most scientists, Hyde possessed industry experience and served as director and chief technical advisor for MAI and was also one of its investors.

Regarding being funded privately, Stevens says, “We wanted to keep the investment local and have a close relationship with our investors, rather than engage a venture capital firm.”  A product line derived from Medical College technology was a major draw for investors.

Medical Advances started out with five patents and two RF coils – one for the cervical spine and one for the lumbar spine. Within 60 days of opening its doors, the company made its first sale valued at $22,000.  Dividing their business between OEM sales to major diagnostic imaging companies and direct sales to end-user customers, Medical Advances broke even within its first year of business and quickly became the leading designer, developer, manufacturer, marketer and servicer of RF coils worldwide.

Within five years, Medical Advances grew 700 percent, and in 1991 made it on the Inc. 500 list of America’s fastest-growing private companies. Their product line eventually encompassed a variety of anatomical applications, including the wrist, abdomen, lower extremity (foot, ankle, and knee), breast, head/neck, pelvic, shoulder and more.

In 1993, Medical Advances became the first tenant at the Technology Innovation Center (TIC) at the Milwaukee County Research Park in Wauwatosa. The location provided convenient access to the Medical College where Stevens and his team worked side by side with scientists and clinicians in product development and testing. At its height, MAI employed 80 people and occupied 27,000 square feet in the TIC. “The Center was able to easily accommodate our rapid growth,” shares Stevens.

After 12 successful years in business and 12 patents under the MAI name, Stevens and Zabriskie decided it was time to pursue other interests. They put the company into play after developing a strategy for horizontal and vertical integration, addressing how Medical Advances fit with other businesses. Their employees were an important consideration in the acquisition process.  Would Medical Advances survive under new management? Stevens and Zabriskie wanted to ensure their people would be taken care of.

In March 1997, Medical Advances was sold to Intermagnetics General Corporation (IMGC) – a publicly traded company on the AMEX and later the NASDAQ whose core product was a superconductive MRI magnet. The company’s profitability and similar product application made IMGC especially attractive to Stevens and Zabriskie.

Under new ownership, Medical Advances remained at the TIC for seven years before moving out and consolidating with another company, MRI Devices. Stevens stayed on with IMGC serving as vice president and general manager of the Medical Advances division until he began a new business venture in 2002. IMGC was later acquired by Dutch multi-national giant, Philips Electronics, in November 2006.

Stevens now serves as president and CEO of Molecular Specialties, Inc., also known as MOLSPEC, – a new company he formed with James Hyde. Like Medical Advances, the company relies on university-based technology transfer to create niche products that address specialty market needs. Focused on molecular dynamics, their product scope is resonance technology, particularly the spectrum from MRI through nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and on to electron spin resonance (ESR/EPR).  Also located at the TIC, MOLSPEC’s distinct ties to the scientific and technology communities are well-served at this location.

As a successful entrepreneur who understands the ins and outs of licensing intellectual property, Stevens offers words of wisdom to those seeking a similar career path. “Don’t do it because you think you’re going to get rich. That only gets in the way of being successful. Rather, do it because you have the passion to overcome obstacles and the vision that your business will prosper. If the business is a success, you will be rewarded in many ways.”