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City firm's tumour device gets thumbs-up

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On Wednesday, Monteris Medical received regulatory clearance to sell its MRI-guided device for treating deep-seated brain tumours in Canada.

The company was started in Winnipeg in 1999, originating from technology developed at the St. Boniface General Hospital Research Centre.

The software in the device allows surgeons to insert a probe into the patient's brain, and with the assistance of MRI images, burn out the tumour with a laser without damaging collateral brain tissues.

It is a procedure that can be used on patients who might otherwise not have any treatment possibilities remaining.

It received clearance in the U.S. from the Food and Drug Administration in 2010 and has six installations in place and in use south of the border.

"We finally have the system cleared in Canada. It works great; physicians in the U.S. are very happy," said John Schellhorn, CEO of Monteris.

Schellhorn is reluctant to say more than that about the market potential, other than the company would really like to be able to have an installation in Winnipeg.

Schellhorn and much of the company's sales and marketing people are based in Plymouth, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis. But the company's engineering, software development and technical offices and some of its production operations is still based in its Winnipeg Smartpark location, where it employs 25 to 30 people.

Most CEOs of companies launching new technologies, medical or otherwise, want to get the word out in hopes of increasing awareness, but Schellhorn isn't interested and does not believe it makes any difference. That's not just because Monteris is a private company. (It is owned by Canadian and U.S. venture-capital funds and individuals, including Winnipeg-based Western Life Science Venture Fund and the Business Development Bank of Canada.)

But private ownership may at least facilitate his take on the development of the company.

"We are a small company and we're dealing with a very high-tech product," he said. "As I tell our people, we need to get good at the things we do and let the rest of the market take care of itself."

There are many publicly traded technology companies that have to answer to shareholders every quarter and are envious of Monteris, which does not have to open its books every three months.

But the very nature of the work Monteris is doing does seem to clash with some of the more obviously commercial elements of the public markets.

"We are treating gravely ill patients," Schellhorn said. "We have a technology that appears to be working quite well. Our job is to never stop improving it, never stop listening to the market. I don't like to get too far ahead of myself. In the end, if we do things right, we will become a bigger company."

Monteris was fortunate enough to attract enough venture capital to develop its technology to the point it's at now without having to go to the public markets.

"Fortunately, we have had good and patient investors and they have waited a long time to get to where we are now. It is really our responsibility as management to realize the vision of the technology," Schellhorn said.

That's not to say companies who rely on public-market financing are not as focused on the same things.

But depending on their level of financing, there are always tricky decisions that have to be made.

For instance, Kane Biotech Inc., another small Winnipeg company, just received FDA approval for primary skin-irritation tests for a wound gel spray it is developing.

Among other things, Kane has produced a formulation in combination with an antibiotic that is now being sold as an oral-care product for pets.

The pet-care product is already on the market, and since Kane is such a small company with limited resources, it has to pick its spots. So the development of the wound-care product will likely have to wait.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 4, 2013 A16

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About Martin Cash

Martin Cash joined the Free Press in 1987 as the paper’s business columnist.

He has spent two decades chronicling the city’s business affairs.

Martin won a citation of merit from the National Newspaper Awards in 2001 for his coverage of the strike and subsequent multi-million-dollar union settlement at the Versatile tractor plant. He has also received honours and awards for his work on agriculture and technology development in Manitoba.

Martin has written a coffee-table book about the commercial and industrial make-up of the city, called Winnipeg: A Prairie Portrait.

Martin Cash on Twitter: @martycash


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