Journey from Intern to CEO – inConversation with Brad Hennessie of NextStep Robotics
The secret to becoming a successful CEO “Build your own comfort level with being uncomfortable”. Brad Hennessie, CEO of NextStep Robotics, knows a little bit about being uncomfortable. Joining the military early in his career he worked as a paratrooper. In his interview with BioBuzz he compared the feeling of pitching NextStep Robotics to jumping from a plane. Brad’s first pitch ever was to the Maryland Momentum Fund given to a board of about 20 members. He walked away with $250,000 to bring NextStep to life. During that first pitch and in his everyday life his passion for NextStep Robotics is center stage.
Brad didn’t start his career as the CEO of a cutting-edge medical technology company. In fact, his journey started as a research intern where he was fortunate to work with Rich Macko (CSO NextStep) at Veterans Medical Center where the idea that would eventually become NextStep was born. Macko, Hennessie, and their team were part of the VA Maryland Exercise and Robotics Center of Excellence (MERCE). He put time and hard work into his education with a Bachelors in Kinesiology and Exercise Science from Towson University, a Masters in Health Care Administration / Management and an MBA from UMUC. All of those years of hard work, education and raising his comfort level with the uncomfortable all lead to the launch of NextStep Robotics in 2017.
The company’s ‘founding story’ began when Brad took another one of his leaps into the uncomfortable zone and propositioned Dr. Forrester and Dr. Macko, the inventors of the technology, to front his base salary and let him try to commercialize it for them. After eight years of running their studies, administering their grants, and managing the personnel, Brad had earned their trust. “A strong relationship with your team is probably the most important thing in a startup,” Brad shared. “Your team has to trust each other because everyone can’t oversee every aspect of what is needed to start a successful business.”
As they began to explore commercialization they found that there wasn’t a clear pathway set up and there weren’t very many people around them who had done it before, particularly at UMB. It wasn’t until they really tapped into the ecosystem, and they learned about TEDCO, that things became more clear. In fact, as Brad recalls, “Initially when we first started discussing the idea of starting NextStep I was losing sleep over the idea of doing this. But after we got the TEDCO MII grant and were introduced to the ecosystem, then I was losing sleep over not doing it.” That mind shift reflects the impact that a strong support system can have for entrepreneurs and emerging companies.
It was Phil Robilotto, Chief Commercialization Officer at UMB Tech Transfer, and Jennifer Hammaker, TEDCO’s MII Program Director, who first connected Brad with serial entrepreneur, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UMCP, and co-Founder of the Maryland Development Center, Gil Blankenship. Gil’s focus is connecting engineers from College Park with clinicians at UMB to develop and commercialize new inventions, and he became an important part NextStep’s team. “All of the mentors I have had have been absolutely phenomenal,” shared Brad. “People like Elizabeth Good, Gill Blankenchip, Jenniffer Hammaker, David Wise, are just a few who have really helped me and NextStep along the way.”
NextStep Robotics is solving a big problem for stroke patients with their exciting new technology. After having a stroke, many patients suffer from a condition called foot drop. Essentially the patient no longer raises their toe while walking. This failure of natural gait is a fall risk for patients already recovering from a serious neurological event. Initially, NextStep’s device will be registered through the FDA as a Class 1 exercise device so it can be sold without FDA approval. This strategy allows NextStep to immediately generate revenue. The robotics team is also eagerly anticipating results from a clinical trial initiated at Baltimore VA Medical Center several years before NextStep was formed. This study uses a different ankle robot device generated by MIT collaborators in 2006, but that shares similar software control system that NextStep has licensed from the University of Maryland, Baltimore for their new device. Brad’s excitement for the VA’s ongoing clinical trial is palpable, “The more individuals in the trial, the faster patients can have access to this type of medical device.” He even asked us to share his email for anyone interested in participating in the VA study. So if you’re interested you can email him at brad.hennessie@nextsteprobo.
The current foot drop technology is either labor intensive or simply immobilizes the ankle. The typical physical therapy regime used to correct this problem involves one or two physical therapists at a time and is still ineffective. The development of the ankle robot at the Baltimore VA was able to break this paradigm in a small initial study. After this study, 85% of users self-discarded their assistive device (boot, cane, walker). The lab device resulted in long-lasting durable improvements in foot drop. The device works as a trainer to help the patients restore their natural gait. It analyses the toe angle for each step making corrective adjustments for subsequent steps. It assists less and less as the patient improves. Once the device is on, physical therapists are free to continue working with other patients, removing costly labor for rehabilitation facilities and their patients.
Brad has a background as a physical therapy technician which gives him the knowledge to guide NextStep’s product to its natural target market, physical therapists. He is looking forward to introducing the product to rehabilitation hospitals and assisted living homes.
On the company’s website, you can see two skeletons walking side by side. It is not a tribute to Halloween. The video shows before and after treatment of an actual patient. The young woman whose skeleton you see was using a functional electronic stimulation device with little success before trying NextStep’s training device. The after video is the result of only 18 hours of physical therapy with NextStep’s device. In the after video, she is walking without an assistive device. You’ll also see, “ We’re causing rehabilitation up the kinematic chain” described Brad. “Not only is the foot drop corrected but the gait improves in the knee and hip.”
NextStep is now making great strides in their race to the clinic. They are hiring, taking on interns, and even looking into how they can expand into other market channels. Now when he thinks about the company and what he’s doing he says, “NextStep has become my real case study to figure out and master tech transfer.” Brad is figuring out the recipe and has plans to continue to grow NextStep’s portfolio with additional technologies that he and his team can bring to market.
At the end of the interview, Brad left interns or anyone else aspiring to be a CEO several pieces of advice. He spoke about getting uncomfortable and getting educated, but when you are ready, he recommended the best way to start. “Go out and tell your story to absolutely everyone you can. Eventually, you are gonna find someone that has a connection or is the exact person you need to be talking to.”