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Campus Life + Health & Wellness + Science & Tech

Their Own Devices

A BU-bred start-up reports on the medical device industry

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Brian Johnson (COM’05) (left) and Brad Perriello (COM’05) are filling an information niche with the help of BU’s Technology Development Business Incubation Program. Photo by Vernon Doucette

The outlook could hardly have seemed brighter for Brian Johnson and Brad Perriello as the two entrepreneurs left a meeting with a potential investor who had ties to Lehman Brothers one afternoon last September. Driving home, Johnson and Perriello basked in a comment by one of the moneymen that $200,000 seemed like a reasonable investment in a fledgling news Web site focused on the medical devices industry.

“We left with the feeling, OK, we got that one,” Johnson recalls.

That feeling, it turns out, was as close as they would get to that start-up capital. A week after the meeting, Johnson picked up the newspaper and read that Lehman Brothers, the venerable Wall Street investment house that had helped countless young businesses get off the ground, was itself crashing and would be filing for bankruptcy.

“That news probably hit the investor’s inbox the same time he got my note thanking him for his interest in investing in our company,” says Johnson.

Johnson (COM’05) and Perriello (COM’05) recalibrated their expectations, if not their aspirations. On March 30, in the shadow of the worst economy in memory, the persistent pair launched MassDevice.com, a BU-centric company: Johnson, publisher of MassDevice.com, and Perriello, executive editor, met seven years ago when they were students at the College of Communication, and the young company’s office is housed in the Boston University Business Incubator on the sixth floor of the Photonics Center.

Between graduation and business launch, the journalism grads went separate ways, or least to different places. Johnson worked as a reporter for the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, in Lawrence, Mass., and Perriello signed on with the Associated Press in Pierre, S.D., later joining Johnson at the Eagle-Tribune. When corporate restructuring bumped Johnson from the business desk to the education beat, he left to work with his father, a consultant for medical device companies. It didn’t take him long to learn everything he could about the medical device business — for instance, he found that Massachusetts has the second largest cluster (39, after California’s 42) of publicly traded medical equipment companies in the country. But the most important thing he learned was that it was hard to learn things about the industry, because it has no reliable newsletter.

At that point, says Johnson, his reportorial zeal succumbed to his entrepreneurial instinct.

“I just thought, if I need this, then other people need this, too,” he recalls. “It looked like an opportunity.”

In fall 2007, he sat down and wrote something new: a business plan for an online news source that would track the wheelings and dealings of medical device makers, focusing first on the $8.5 billion medical device business in Massachusetts, eventually expanding nationwide. The Web site (there was no thought of printing MassDevice) would be written for a general audience, but would target people who work in the medical device business and investors looking for opportunities in that niche. As the business plan explained, the site would be supported by ads from a constellation of support businesses, such as law firms and insurance companies.

As a reality check — and with hope that Perriello would join him — he showed the plan to his old friend from COM.

“At first,” recalls Perriello, “I really didn’t see the vision. I thought maybe I could help Brian out with proofreading and stuff. But the more research we did, the more this began to look like a really good idea. Finally, I said, ‘You know, we should get this off the ground before somebody else does it.’”

Thus began several months of late nights, studying the online publishing business, scrutinizing Web sites, and finally, tossing around ideas about the best place to set up shop. When a friend wondered if Boston University had anything in the way of a business incubator, Johnson did what all reporters do: he picked up the phone and called BU. Within days, he was riding the elevator to the sixth floor of the Photonics Center with Cliff Robinson, director of BU’s Business Incubation Program. Robinson walked him through the “cube farm,” a narrow row of cubicles amid a warren of offices housing a dozen young companies, most with at least one foot in the world of biotech.

“I was really excited,” says Johnson. “I remember looking out the window of what could be our space, astonished that you could see a minaret in Roxbury. I jumped all over it.”

While the incubator space (really just a few cubicles and a conference room) was not elegant, its perks included the services of two very capable interns. “They’ve been critical in terms of filling holes for things like search-engine marketing,” says Johnson. “We’ve even brought them to fundraising pitches and conferences.”

There are also unanticipated benefits to working in a garden of start-ups, all powered by smart, ambitious entrepreneurs. “We all get to swap war stories,” Johnson says.

By mid-March, the MassDevice.com Web site was ready for testing, but far from ready with content. Johnson and Perriello hunkered down, and in two weeks, Johnson says, they wrote almost 100 stories to backfill the inventory. Even then, he admits, they wondered if it would be better to start their business in healthier economic times. In the end, says Perriello, it made strange sense to launch when it looked like things could only get better.

Was it the right choice? In April, according to Johnson, MassDevice.com had 55,000 page views, many more than he had expected. And since then, he and Perriello have been too busy to worry. Working with 13 freelancers, they post about seven new stories a day. And when they’re not editing, they’re collecting e-mail addresses, strategizing about social networking tools like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or meeting with advertisers. The advertisers are coming, Johnson says. The writers are producing. The office space is just what they need.

“I remember the day we launched,” he says. “I realized that I hadn’t given myself a moment to sit back and think about what we had done. So I did exactly that. I just sat back for five minutes and smiled, and said to myself, you know, we really did something great.”

“Then,” says Johnson, “I got in my car and drove to Springfield to sell an ad.”

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.

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