Interview with Jeff Kovick '11

Interview by Howie Rhee '04 on September 28, 2011

You got your undergraduate degree from Duke in 2001.  What did you study and were you involved in anything entrepreneurial?

I was a double major in political science and African and African American Studies. I think I may have been one of the few people who somehow found a way to use that combination of majors in my early career when I did international political/government development work!

I had the good fortune that two of my closest friends from undergrad were launching a magazine our senior year, and I distinctly remember spending a nice spring day with Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur passing out the first-ever copy of mental_floss over at UNC to drum up some interest. My contribution wasn’t much, but it was fun to support them in a few very minor projects in the early years. More than anything, watching them over the last decade successfully navigate starting a magazine in arguably one of the worst environments ever to do so, it really resonated with me how much fun entrepreneurship can be in being integral to overcoming great challenges.

Where were you when Duke's Men's Basketball team won the National Championship in 2001?

It was my senior year, and I watched the game in my neighbor’s apartment on central campus before making my way (perhaps a bit blurrily) through the gardens and to west campus to watch the bench-burning. I had traveled down to St. Pete two years earlier for that terrible game against UConn, and I was still rankled enough by having to sit up in the rafters of Tropicana Field to avoid taking another roadtrip in 2001. Plus, I had traveled with the women’s team through my work in the sports information office, and my road record with our basketball teams was less than stellar.

You went on to work at the National Democratic Institute, the Save Darfur Coalition as a Communications Director, and at United Airlines as a Senior Staff Representative. Tell us a little about those experiences.

It certainly makes for an eclectic resume, and often one hard to explain. National Democratic Institute (NDI) is a non-profit that works with foreign governments and institutions (political parties, parliaments, etc) on enhancing the democratic process in emerging democracies – this was before the term “democracy building” got twisted a bit because of Iraq. Among the highlights were working in Cambodia for four months before its elections and getting to help analyze its draft election law. While there isn’t a clear connection between that work and my current efforts, in my mind it’s obvious that any time you can get a chance like that, you grab it and see where it takes you. 

Through a variety of mentors, I somehow found my way into communications, and though I had worked at Save Darfur for a few months in another position, my first day doing communications led to a last-minute request to do a live interview on Fox News within an hour. I was terrified – I didn’t even have a tie and had to borrow one from one of the journalists at the studio – but all went well enough. 

In a much different way, United could be pretty terrifying on a day-to-day basis, too – with 50,000 employees and hundreds of thousands of passengers every day, something inevitably required the attention of the media relations team. It also made for exciting days because you never knew when you woke up exactly what the day would hold – something that isn’t entirely different from being at a start-up. 

Tell us why you came to Duke for and what you were hoping for from your MBA. 

This was such a good question that I decided to re-read my application for Fuqua, and surprisingly, nowhere in there did I mention that I wanted to lead a medical device start-up that would help treat women’s urinary incontinence!

I knew all along that Fuqua would help shape my interests in the same way that Duke undergrad had the first time – such smart, fun people who really have a passion for understanding and changing the world. I wasn’t precisely sure what that would mean from a career perspective, but the quality of individuals I would interact and become friends with ensured that I would learn a ton about the world and what I wanted to do. So in short, I guess I came for the people and knew it would take me somewhere good.

Tell us about your time at Duke. Were you planning to be an entrepreneur? How did you get connected to the entrepreneurship scene?

Joe Knight. The guy knows pretty much everything, and the smartest thing I ever did was foolishly play hard-to-get with Joe on his urinary incontinence technology. I had met him and a few other students before the Program for Entrepreneurship (P4E) Kickoff Event the week before school even started, and since I had a background in PR, was able to help them with their initial idea presentations. From there, it just morphed into working with the Medici team and increasingly taking on more of a leadership role, learning about the issue we were trying to resolve, and just trying to make myself indispensable so that I could continue to stay a part of it. It’s amazing to look at some very random occurrences in the week before school even started and how that has resulted in what I’m now doing. 

Tell us more about Medici.  What has the experience been like starting it during b-school?

P4E was a huge part of that experience, giving us a framework, insight, and advisors to really move forward. I look back at the initial presentation and executive summary we put together for Medici and have to laugh at what we thought at the time was great (and I’m sure many years from now I’ll say the same about our current presentation). Getting the free input from those advisors both in and out of the program is invaluable and is undoubtedly the most important aspect of the program – we are still fortunate to call on those advisors, though it gets a little tougher to benefit from new ones when you lose the ‘student’ moniker.

The juxtaposition of my student and entrepreneur lives was my favorite part. I spent one evening roller skating at a Durham rink with my friends to songs I’m far too old to know the words to (think Miley Cyrus), and then the next morning was in a VC’s office asking them what else we would need to do secure a million dollars. So the work hard, play hard mentality is still a strong part of the Duke culture.

There was a grant from NCIIA that came after your first year of b-school.  How important was that grant?

Imperative. Raising money is hard (if anyone reading this has $500K, I’ve got a great opportunity :) ), and any early money you can get is important. I would have said this was merely good for third-party credibility and to say we were grant-funded, but really, we used those early funds to make a few real-size prototypes of our device which changed the dynamic of what we were doing. While it’s still very much an uphill battle with technology still in development, the NCIIA grant was a critical step on the way.

Video on Medici from the Open Minds conference

You were in the Program for Entrepreneurs (P4E) for the entire program.  What did you like about being in P4E?

Meetings with Jon Fjeld were always enlightening and usually terrifying, and I think I can now say that since he’s no longer my professor. You know going into a meeting with Jon that he is going to ask very challenging and insightful questions, most of which you don’t/can’t have an answer to at the stage we were at. It was clear very early on that he loved that role, ensuring we weren’t getting too overconfident and guiding us towards the tough information we still needed to obtain. And though it sometimes sort of sucks to go into a meeting knowing that someone will point out a gaping hole, it’s a heck of a lot better for your professor to do it now than an investor 6 months from now.

Similarly, the advisors we had access to were incredibly kind in sharing their time and expertise. When you are just starting out in entrepreneurship altogether, there are so many errors that you can and will make. Those advisors ensured that none of the errors we made were death blows to our start-up. It’s incredible to have an advisor who has done this successfully a bunch of times who will always pick up the phone and meet with us on a weekly basis to go over some of the basics of getting started. I hope to learn enough to give back to future students, and I hope those on DukeGEN understand how valuable this is to first time entrepreneurs looking for guidance.
You competed in the Duke Start-Up Challenge.  You ultimately were one of the finalists, but did not win the competition. What were the benefits of competing in the Duke Start-Up Challenge?

Yeah, entrepreneurship is humbling, especially in public business plan competitions. It’s definitely tough to put so much time in and walk away without cash, but you know these events are super competitive with worthwhile endeavors and amazing students, like the ones that ultimately won.  

We certainly took a lot from the Duke Start-Up Challenge, most notably a potential investor who saw our efforts, as well as a refinement of our elevator pitch to something that we are pretty happy with nowadays. Plus, it’s not every day that you can get experienced judges with decades of investing experience to give you free input into your business plan and pitch!

You have a job offer from BCG.  They have been incredibly supportive and flexible on your start date.  Do they view your startup experiences positively?

They have been tremendous, and I love giving them the credit they deserve for being so generous and allowing me to pursue Medici. I knew from my summer with them that they were amazingly progressive and took a long-term approach on things, and this is a good example. I’m hopeful they saw a lot of potential from my summer and were willing to be flexible for that alone, but I think they also know what I’m gaining from taking Medici forward and how much more valuable of an employee I will be for them as a result. They’ve even been kind enough to connect me to individuals that might be able to help move Medici forward! I’ll very much look forward to working with them down the line, but we’ve got some important work to do on Medici before then.

Give us an update on Medici.  What are some of the next steps for your business?

It’s all about fundraising right now, and though we know it’s not a lot of money as far as entrepreneurship and med devices go, we are ready to jump forward once we raise $500K. We’ll finish device design and have a complete, working device, and then we’ll undertake a small First-in-Man study in the office of the Duke urogynecologist with whom we have been working. We’re also just about to close on a licensing agreement with Stanford around part of the technology we’re commercializing. From there, we think it’s a $1.5M Series A round to get FDA approval.

Business school is fairly active, with lots of classmates, deliverables and activities.  Starting a company, you're around a lot fewer people and activities. How has the transition gone from being a full-time MBA student to a full-time startup founder?

You’ve definitely nailed the hardest adjustment thus far, moving from an environment of constant distraction to one of no distraction. And while you would think that the latter would be an easier environment from which to work, it actually just highlights how slow of a process fundraising is. 

I’ve enjoyed it immensely. A lot of my classmates have used the summer to have some pretty amazing travel experiences before heading off to consulting, investment banking, and everywhere else – my summer has been quite different but no less enjoyable because the challenge of bringing Medici forward is a fun one to work on. Hopefully, we’ll be able to piece together some funding soon to take those important next steps and to give me a few more distractions, like managing our manufacturing partners, some regulatory consultants, and a clinical study.

If alumni or students out there want to help you with Medici, what sort of help are you looking for?

First, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the people from DukeGEN who have already provided tremendous insight and help. Of course, we’re always looking for more, and as you’ve probably gathered if you’ve read this far, money is pretty critical. We’d welcome any introductions to angels who have an interest in medical devices (or an interest in urinary incontinence). The two resources I have in abundance right now are time and unlimited long-distance calling, and I’m happy to use them both to talk to anyone who will listen. 

We’re also likely be looking to supplement our management team once we make some progress on the manufacturing front, possibly looking for someone with a bit more experience than me to help us move this forward. It may be a bit early for that, but we’re hopeful that this first tranche of funding can facilitate enough progress that we could bring in someone to propel us forward. 


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