Daniel Burnett wants to be a doctor, but he’s already demonstrated that he’s a natural salesman.

Burnett, who graduated from Duke University School of Medicine and received his MBA from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business last year, has developed an eye surgery procedure that he says is an improvement over on popular refractive laser surgery because no incisions in the eye are needed.

He and some colleagues also have developed quite a pitch for the concept. They have built a company, NovOculi, around the technique and entered it in a half dozen business plan competitions across the United States and Canada over the past year, winning some $80,000 for their efforts.

With LASIK, the best-known form of refractive surgery, a doctor cuts a flap in a patient’s cornea to fold it back before using a laser to burn away cells underneath, which reshapes the cornea for improved vision. The procedure has become wildly popular since federal regulators first approved eye surgery lasers in 1995, with more than 1 million Americans receiving treatment last year.

But a recent study by Ohio State University shows that between a quarter and a third of LASIK patients report subsequent problems, such as loss of night vision, seeing starbursts or halos or a persistent feeling of something like sand in the eye.

“It’s a pretty mean incision that can lead to complications,” says Burnett, who observed LASIK procedures while training to be an ophthalmologist at Duke and figured there had to be an easier method.

A perfect pitch

The idea he came up with, dubbed non-invasive corneal sculpting, involves injecting a chemical dye into the cornea and shooting a laser at the dye, which burns away the cells and reshapes the cornea. He performed the procedure on a number of cadavers in school with good success, although he’s still trying to perfect the dye-laser combination to limit coagulation of the dye.

One thing he doesn’t have to perfect is selling the business plan for NovOculi. The concept won first place awards in competitions sponsored by MBA Jungle magazine and the University of Maryland, placed second at last year’s Duke Start-Up Challenge, where it also was named the People’s Choice winner and Best Presentation, and took third place in the University of Oregon’s New Venture Championship.

The winnings from the contests have provided NovOculi with enough seed capital to continue its research without costing the entrepreneurs a bit of their equity in the company.

“It’s worked out pretty well for us,” says Burnett, who now is performing his internship at The Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.

But Chris Matton, a securities lawyer at Kilpatrick Stockton in Raleigh, doesn’t recommend business plan competitions as a way to seed start-ups.

“This is an opportunity these guys have had because they do have a solid plan,” says Matton, who was a judge at last year’s Duke competition. “These competitions are extraordinarily intense, and an entrepreneur is probably misguided to try that as a first option.”

Venture cash will be sought

Still, NovOculi now has money to pay two of its partners, Fuqua graduates Joseph Walker and Loy Chia, a small salary this summer to begin recruiting a technical expert to work on the laser-dye combination and start drawing up plans to pursue a more conventional form of financing: venture capital.

Other members of the team include President Jeffrey Porter, former Duke Medical Center employee who is pursuing his MBA at Maryland, and Andy Rubinson, an MBA student at MIT. Burnett serves as vice president of research and development.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us, and I haven’t wanted to take any (venture) money until we had worked out our technical issues, which would increase our valuation,” Burnett says, noting that judges at one competition offered to buy the NovOculi concept.

The technique also will have to overcome skepticism in the medical community. Michelle Stephens, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, says no doctors in her organization could comment on the procedure because they aren’t familiar with it. But she adds that other non-invasive procedures are already in use, so she doesn’t know how NovOculi will find a niche in the market.

Burnett isn’t fazed. He has entered the concept in two more competitions, sponsored by MIT and venture firm Carrot Capital, and he is busy laying the groundwork for a second company, called TheraNova, which uses electromagnetic pulses to treat arthritis pain and muscular atrophy. That idea already has won an award at a Canadian business plan contest.