May 28, 2018 – by Molly Dill / BizTimes Milwaukee Business News
With a proprietary surface technology and a runway of private equity investment, Titan Spine LLC has, to borrow a phrase from the cult classic film “This is Spinal Tap,” turned its growth up to 11.
The Mequon-based medical device developer was established after surgeon Dr. Peter Ullrich came up with the idea to make interbody spinal implants out of titanium instead of plastic to better encourage bone growth.
It turns out, he was on to something.
Titan Spine launched in 2006 and has since created a sea change in its industry vertical. Over the past 10 years, it has grown at a rate of more than 40 percent per year. More than 70,000 of its devices have been implanted, it has more than 50 patents and the company has grown to $63 million in revenue. Titan Spine recently raised $15 million in a private equity round.
In 2002, when he was working as a spine surgeon in Neenah, Ullrich was seeking a medical device that wouldn’t damage a portion of the spine called the end plate in an interbody fusion procedure, but there wasn’t one. He had identified a problem.
“We were doing threaded cages. They were titanium cages but they were round,” Ullrich said.
“Structurally, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me and the cages would tend to do something called subside, which the cage would work its way into the bone.”
He came up with a new design by changing the dimensions of the cage and providing a surface to keep the cage in that didn’t damage the end plate.
So Ullrich contacted his friend at spine and orthopedic biosurgery company Orthovita Inc. (now part of Stryker Corp.) to develop the device, Endoskeleton TA. By 2004, the Endoskeleton had received FDA clearance for use as a vertebral body replacement and Ullrich was using it in patients.
But Ullrich’s product didn’t receive FDA approval at Orthovita as an interbody fusion device.
Ullrich decided to form a new company around his invention, which bought back the business from Orthovita, and Titan Spine was born. He brought on friend Kevin Gemas to manage the business side and Steve Cichy to focus on sales. Ullrich, now chief executive officer, and Gemas went to high school together in Plymouth.
“We became best friends and he went into surgery, I went into football and business, and then we came back together on this idea,” said Gemas, now president of Titan Spine.
Gemas previously owned KWG & Associates Inc., and founded and served as president of College Bound Student Athletes.
The pair started Titan Spine out of an apartment in Sheboygan Falls, putting in their own money, raising money from friends and family, and growing the business organically, investing any profits back into the business for eight or nine years.
While most spinal implants on the market were made of plastic, the Endoskeleton was made of titanium.
“We were like the rebels. Very few people had titanium and we were one of the only ones that (used) titanium and we kept preaching our surface technology years earlier,” Gemas said.
Surgeons were used to inserting a plastic implant, then surrounding it with biologic material, such as a bone graft, that would encourage bone growth at the site. But Titan Spine contends the biologics, which can be expensive, are not needed because the proprietary grooved nanoLOCK surface on the devices it has developed is a strong enough encouragement for bone growth.
“We wanted to make a device that participated in the fusion process instead of just being a spacer,” Gemas said.
With its nanoLOCK products, Titan has been able to reduce the amount of time patients are taking opioids and shorten the recovery time, Ullrich said.