Biomedical startup EnBiologics puts trio of students on entrepreneurial fast track

January 31, 2017

Over the coming months, look for videos, stories and events that feature some of the many Wayne State initiatives and passionate individuals committed to impacting their communities through innovation and entrepreneurship. This content is part of WSU's Warriors in Action campaign highlighting how Wayne State is making a difference.

Sean Carroll, Ramy Habib and Gregory Apers didn’t envision an entrepreneurial career path for themselves two years ago when they met through a clinical engineering internship at Beaumont Hospital. However, most engineers are fundamentally problem solvers, and the notion that “there has to be a better way” often resonates deeper than a common catchphrase.

What began with a momentary observation in an intensive care unit has blossomed into a startup called EnBiologics, for which the Wayne State biomedical engineering graduate students received the On the Mark award at the DTX Launch Detroit 2016 Showcase at TechTown in early August. The trio was subsequently invited to TechTown’s Business Incubation Center.

DTX Launch Detroit is a program of the Detroit Technology Exchange (DTX), a partnership between TechTown and other leaders in industry, entrepreneurship and technology. The On the Mark award is presented to the team with the best value proposition for their business.

EnBiologics was founded based on burn and wound care technology that Carroll, Habib and Apers have been working on since the former two were part of a class at Wayne State doing clinical observation work at Detroit Medical Center. Carroll was watching an infant who had burns over 80 percent of her body undergo a painful dressing change on her injuries.

He learned that such procedures dated back to the 1950’s. Being part of the emergence of biomedical engineers looking to influence the health care industry, Carroll was inspired to find a better solution for burn applications, but it was his collaboration with Habib that led to a breakthrough.

“Where I come from (in Egypt), we’ve used honey as a treatment for 7,000 years,” said Habib. “So I said, ‘why not use honey?’”

Hours of research led the group to Manuka honey, which is produced in New Zealand and is noted for having particularly high antibacterial and antifungal medicinal properties. Habib worked to cross-link this honey with other ingredients to complete the formula for EnHoney, a hydrogel-like topical substance they believe will be easier to apply and offer superior moisturization and scar reduction.

Carroll and Habib brought Apers into the fold to assist with design and operations. As the group did some preliminary testing and realized they had a potential business opportunity, they sought guidance through Blackstone LaunchPad, which offers career resources to entrepreneurs and inventors at Wayne State.

It was the advisors at Blackstone LaunchPad who recommended the group participate in DTX Launch Detroit, an intensive summer accelerator for college students and recent graduates aspiring to launch a technology startup.

With 10 weeks and a $7,500 stipend with which to test out their business model, the fledgling entrepreneurs went through a crash course in customer discovery, value proposition and market analysis.

“When we started the program, we figured that we were going to be burn care solution manufacturers,” said Carroll. “We were going to make our solution, patent it, mass produce it and sell it to hospitals.

Joe Licavoli, the group’s coach in the DTX Launch Detroit program, noted that the EnBiologics team came in very aggressive, yet wide open to learning as much as they could.

“It wasn’t hard to motivate them. They did a really nice job of doing that themselves,” said Licavoli, who also works with entrepreneurs as director of the SPARK East incubator in Ypsilanti. “Every time I gave them a suggestion, they took it and ran with it well. They were extremely coachable.”

The coaching was particularly crucial through the customer discovery process, during which teams are required to conduct more than 100 interviews before making decisions as to whether or not to adjust their business approach.

“They’ve learned a lot in the programs at Wayne State and they put that into practice in doing their customer discovery,” said Licavoli.

The group learned that burn treatments are a small segment and difficult to break into. They decided to expand to wound care in general, which is a large market by comparison and, according to Carroll, more accepting of new ideas. However, that wasn’t the only pivot to their business plan.

With the realization that U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval is extraordinarily expensive and takes years to process, they focused instead on veterinary medicine, a field in which burn and wound care is very similar while also being cheaper and more accessible.

DTX Launch Detroit was an invaluable experience, as the lessons learned there prevented the group from making hasty decisions and having too broad of a focus. Apers thinks that the connections he has made with mentors and coaches along the way will be particularly helpful as he learns to navigate unfamiliar territory in the business world.

“I’m very much focused on design, develop and then let someone else sell it. In this case, you have to do it all yourself,” said Apers. “They were very good at helping us not only learn how to do that but also how to network with the right people who have done that already and are willing to help us keep going forward.”

EnBiologics has grown to a full-fledged company with an opportunity to develop further under the umbrella of the TechTown Detroit Business Incubator, which nurtures tech-based startups that have demonstrated an understanding of what their company offers, who their market is, who their competitors are, and how their technology presents an opportunity to gain significant market share.

The next steps for Carroll, Habib and Apers are to pursue a patent and collect more research data about their product, with the hope that EnHoney is the future of burn and wound care for animals – and eventually humans.