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Stephen Fening of Apto Orthopaedics

Stephen Fening co-founded the medical device firm Apto Orthopaedics to provide a noninvasive spinal fixation system for children with a curvature of the spine known as scoliosis. Launched in 2012, the Apto solution uses a rotating magnet that can non-surgically adjust metal screws within spinal implants from outside the body.
How did you come up with the idea for your business?
The concept came about when I was watching an episode of This Old House. Someone was magnetically adjusting a screw into a banister, and I thought there must be some medical application to that. I later observed a spinal surgery with (Apto co-founder) Dr. Todd Ritzman, and immediately thought of a use for the technology. Todd and I worked together to come up with a solution.
What makes your device unique?
There are no devices in the U.S. for noninvasive treatment of scoliosis. We have a device that serves a huge patient need. It's heartbreaking to see kids with scoliosis go through repeat surgeries to adjust their current implants. These kids are constantly preparing for or recovering from surgery throughout their entire childhood. Our device would eliminate some or all of those adjustment procedures. Potential impact on patient care is our primary concern.
What state or local resources did you take advantage of and how did they help?
Our primary resource has been the Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron (ABIA). They helped us with technology development fund applications that paid for engineering time, as well as materials costs to create a proof of concept. Otherwise, we've received money from The Akron BioInvestment Funds and Ohio Third Frontier. It would have been very difficult for us to get anywhere without that kind of help.
What have you learned along the way as your business has grown?
We know that the need is huge from the open houses we've held at ABIA. Patients have come in and told us how much they would like to have our technology, but it's hard because we're still years away from putting (the device) on the market.
Any surprises so far?
Todd is an orthopedic surgeon. I'm the director of orthopedic research at Summa Health System and director of orthopaedic devices at ABIA. We've never run an early-stage small company before. It surprised us how difficult it was just to get going. Simply having a good technology is not good enough to get a product to market. That's a minor part of it. You need people who can commercialize that technology along with a market that's ready to receive that tech. Right now we're putting together a board of advisors and recruiting a CEO.
What do you find most rewarding about running your own business? 
As we're still starting out and don't have any employees yet, we get to make the decisions that drive the company for better or worse. There's a freedom in having the capability of making something succeed yourself rather than depending on someone else.

Interview by Douglas J. Guth

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