DURHAM – Attentive audiences packed three sizable classrooms at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business for the Council for Entrepreneurial Development’s aptly named “Engage”.

Like the first Engage earlier this year, top-level healthcare executives and entrepreneurs shared candid ideas before big crowds at last week’s event.

The simultaneously running panels covered highly practical healthcare topics: “Developing Products for the Healthcare Market;” “Building Your Company Through Successful Healthcare Alliances,” and “Company as Consumer: Healthcare Cost Cutting Strategies and Implementation Pitfalls.”

The “Developing Healthcare Products” panel included Rick Brajer, president and CEO of Liposcience; Robb Cadwallader, president and CEO of United Emergency Services; Donald Fortin, president and CEO of Versagenics; Alan Ying, president of Mercury MD; Bud Whitmeyer, chairman of Noverant; and a general partner with Research Triangle Ventures; with Tim Gupton of Hughes Pittman & Gupton, as moderator.

The panelists offered advice from the perspective of experience. Alan Ying of Mercury MD defined part of the discussion when he described starting a business as like “peeling wallpaper. You know, you get down to these little postage stamp-sized pieces and you say, I’m going to peel this wallpaper no matter how hard it gets.”

The phrase obviously resonated with the others. Several of the other panelists later referred to their experience as entrepreneurs in terms of how much wallpaper they peeled.

Ying also suggested that entrepreneurs should define how far they intended to go when they decided to solve a problem and “figure out what you’re willing to live with. Do you want it so it affects your university? North Carolina? Or your entire industry or profession?”

The high cost of entrepreneurship

He also warned that entrepreneurs may “have to give up your first born and your left kidney” to finance an idea and may not own it in the end. He noted that a company also has to grow marketing tools to sell its product.

“All of us can make a better hamburger than McDonalds,” he said, “But can we make more money selling them than McDonalds?”

Whitmeyer, the Noverant chairman, added: “The successful companies I’ve seen refused to accept failure even if it was staring them in the face.”

Monica Doss, head of the CED, told Local Tech Wire that Engage intentionally tries to bring senior management, often the top “C” level positions, to the panel discussions.

Following the panel sessions, several listeners used the same phrase in reaction: “Heard a lot of good information.”

Deal making, deal seeking

The mood at the reception following the keynote speech by Bob Greczyn, president and chief executive officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, was distinctly upbeat. Although optimism prevailed, you could hear a note of realism. The sound of the Internet bubble bursting has not completely faded from anyone’s ears.

Still, if the mood evident at the event translates into action, the next few quarters are likely to see a growing number of venture investment deals closing.

Steve Nelson of the Wakefield Group’s Research Triangle Office and a recent CED chairman, told LTW, “Everyone is chasing deals. We all think it’s going to be a very good year for investing. The bar is still high. They have to be quality companies.”

Nelson also said a number of local venture capital groups “are working hard together chasing down good companies.” It’s not uncommon for several small local venture funds to invest in the same company.

The CEO of a Triangle biotech startup said that recent acquisitions of local companies such as Smartpath means investors received checks. “I heard that now they’re out looking for new deals,” he said.

BCBS CEO’s speech: www.localtechwire.com/article.cfm?u=7669

CED: www.cednc.org