When Nick Seto chose to do a BCom at the Sauder School of Business he had no idea that his training would lead to a significant breakthrough in medical science. But now, just four years after graduation, he is on the cusp of revolutionizing how surgeons make incisions.
His trajectory, which launched him to where he now sits in his downtown Vancouver office as co-founder of Target Tape, would never have been initiated were it not for a Sauder course that matched him with his partner, a UBC engineering student with a brilliant idea.
“I initially thought I would get into something like Sauder’s Portfolio Management Foundation investment banking program and follow a career in finance,” he says. “However, I became hooked by entrepreneurship and discovered a real passion for it.”
It was the course New Venture Design (NVD), jointly offered by Sauder and UBC’s Faculty of Applied Science that dangled the bait. Pairing Sauder students with those from other UBC faculties, the program aims to equip students with the skills and support to produce viable product prototypes and business plans.
As well as learning the early steps involved in setting up a business, student teams compete in business plan competitions to gain experience, find mentors and build contacts.
A life changing moment
For Seto, the program transformed his life. He joined up with engineering student Colin O’Neill, who had the idea for a medical device to help surgeons make more precise incisions during operating procedures.
“Colin was in a medical device development course during which he observed a jaw fracture procedure,” says Seto. “In the procedure the surgeon had the patient x-ray up on screen and you could see the fracture line.
“What surgeons normally do is feel for the fracture. In this case he felt for what he thought was the fracture and cut into the spot. It ended up being the wrong spot and he had to extend the incision.”
O’Neill’s ingenious solution to the problem was to transfer marks from the x-ray directly onto the patient's body.
Seto and O’Neill took this germ of an idea and, with guidance from faculty on the NVD program, developed their product - Target Tape, an adhesive tape that helps surgeons make more precise incisions.
How Target Tape works:
“We never really thought it would develop into a business, but after gaining the feedback from professors and surgeons during the course and participating in various case competitions, we established the need for the product,” says Seto.
Seto and O’Neill were also invited to present their fledgling business idea to the local business community at the annual Sauder Entrepreneurship Luncheon organized by Sauder’s W. Maurice Young Centre for Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Research.
There they connected with some angel investors and UBC alumnus Paul Geyer, CEO at LightIntegra Technology Inc., who became their main advisor and is now on Target Tape’s advisory board.
Hitting the ground running
Seto and O’Neill committed to working on Target Tape full time after graduation. With the initial work done, they hit the ground running and were able to focus on refining their product.
“In the early stage of the company, Target Tape left an ink stamp on the body,” says Seto. “After we graduated and started doing all the development and testing we pivoted a couple of times to find alternative embodiments. Now it leaves a very thin, removable film on the body.”
Understanding when and why to pivot at the early stage of a new enterprise is one of the key learnings from the New Venture Design program, according to co-instructor and Sauder marketing faculty Paul Cubbon.
“It’s easy to misread the market. You think the customer type was X but it’s really Y, or you think the product they cared about is A but it’s really B,” he says. “Finding the pivot early changes the specification of what should be designed and built. It is critical to every aspect of the emerging venture. Design the right thing for the right person.”
In New Venture Design students go through the process involved in creating a new product prototype and developing a viable business model and plan. They learn about things like creativity, market definition, financial projections, the design cycle, product marketing, manufacturing and distribution. Employing a ‘Lean Launchpad’ style approach, the course gets students to hypothesize, test, validate, invalidate or pivot.”
The support and guidance Seto received didn’t end after graduation. In 2010, Target Tape became the first company to receive funding through entrepreneurship@UBC (e@UBC) – an initiative designed to support startups founded by UBC students, alumni, faculty and staff.
Chosen by the e@UBC Seed Accelerator to present their ideas to venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, the presentation skills developed at Sauder paid dividends as Target Tape came top out of five companies and received $50,000 of equity investment.
“Starting a company out of university can seem very daunting,” says Seto. “Programs like entrepreneurship@UBC provide invaluable assistance with their connections and resources.”
Target Tape is transitioning into its commercial launch this year after another pivot saw the company switch from targeting individual surgeons or hospitals to partnering with medical device companies to gain access to their distribution networks.
With his business gathering tremendous momentum, Seto isn’t leaving Sauder in the rearview mirror. In fact, he attended Sauder’s most recent Entrepreneurship Luncheon looking to support the next generation of entrepreneurs to come out of the school.
“I’m very impressed with the new ideas coming through,” he says. “I can see myself becoming a mentor and eventually investing in businesses. It's very cyclical. Twenty years ago my mentor started in the same way.”