Alachua-based life sciences company AxoGen expects to grow more than 40 percent in 2017 as it continues to develop and sell products derived from human tissue.
CEO Karen Zaderej is one of the few women in the world to lead a medical technology company. Since she joined in 2006 as the sixth employee, Zaderej has led AxoGen through some challenging times, such as reducing the sales team to only three people. This came right after the company developed its first product for human use, which was a huge step forward.
“We managed to do that right when the recession crashed around us,” Zaderej said. “We made some tough decisions to keep our clinical work going but to tighten our belts everywhere else. It was 2011 before we were actually able to raise money again.”
Today Zaderej and her senior team have rebuilt the company, which now has 51 sales reps and a growing portfolio of products. AxoGen has had 23 consecutive quarters of double-digit growth, and the company stock price more than doubled last year.
“Being in this start-up world is absolutely not for everybody,” Zaderej said. “It’s a little bit like white water rafting. There are always obstacles in your way and you just have to figure out how to get through them. I’ve always believed there’s a tremendous opportunity to help patients in an area that’s underserved, and we’ve always stayed true to that vision.”
AxoGen products have been used in some of the most advanced procedures in nerve and tissue repair in recent years. In addition to repairs after severe accidents or trauma, including military battle, they were also used in a breakthrough surgery where a 43-year-old amputee is now able to guide the motion of her prosthetic hand and arm with her mind – even when the prosthetic arm is not attached to her body.
AxoGen is quickly making a name for itself in the world of nerve repair. This is a largely untapped market, and AxoGen hopes to improve the standard of care in the way peripheral nerves are fixed. While surgical techniques have been used for this type of treatment before, it can cause complications for patients. Sometimes these patients are even considered inoperable.
“With surgery they would have to transplant nerves from one area to another, so you always have to lose something to fix something new. This can be expensive and timely,” Zaderej said. “We think there’s a real opportunity to come in with off-the-shelf products to allow consistency in regenerative medicine and implants.”
AxoGen has now helped thousands of patients, which Zaderej credits as her motivation. And her advice to other businesses? Keep going.
“Through our product development we’ve been able to help wonderful patients who have had nerve issues or injuries,” she said. “We’ve been able to provide them this new, life-changing alternative. We’ve spent hours working, and it has made a difference in someone’s life. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
The CEO said that she’s also proud to have built a good, viable business plan. AxoGen may have had a rocky start, but it’s now one of the 500 fastest growing companies in the United States.
“It’s nice to see that by executing our plan we’re making a change, and also that it’s sustainable and growing,” Zaderej said.
These changes don’t come without growing pains, however.
“When you’re a company of 10 people you operate one way, and when you’re a company of 50 people you operate differently,” she said. “Now we’re at 150 people, and we operate internationally. We continue to get more complex.”
Change is constant for the young biotech company, and Zaderej is confident that as it continues to expand, she will actively evolve with it.
“That means we’ll continue to modify business processes to allow for that scale and that growth,” she said. “I think we’ve done that, but it’s part of that white water experience that I talked about. It’s about continuing to move forward while remaining flexible enough to adapt to that change.”
By Koertni Adams