In this series, we’re checking in with some of our amazing alumni entrepreneurs to see how their ventures have developed over the years and how they’ve grown as entrepreneurs. Today, we’re excited to feature Tyler Wanke (MMM 2015, Feinberg School of Medicine MD 2022, Zell Fellow Alumnus, Co-founder and founding CEO of Innoblative Designs, Inc.) and Lorena Arathoon (2Y 2015, Zell Fellow Alumnus, Co-Founder & CEO of Snackerie).
Tell us a little about yourself and your company.
Tyler Wanke: With $5,000 in initial funding, I took leave from my third year of medical school to go to Kellogg to start my first company, Innoblative in 2013. Then just an “idea on a napkin,” Innoblative is now a next-generation electrosurgical medical device company developing advanced energy solutions for cancer therapy and beyond. Spun out of a NUvention-like pilot (INVO’s Center for Device Development “CD2”) — with co-founders including Dr. Dan McCarthy (MMM ’13) and Jason Dandler (JD-MBA /15) — Innoblative has since innovated radiofrequency ablation (“RFA”) devices with disruptive potential in the treatment of liver, breast, and lung cancers. SIRATM (Saline-coupled Intra-operative Radio-frequency Ablation + coagulation) is Innoblative’s patent-protected (26 patents), FDA-cleared, and CE-marked surgical device that uniquely combines bipolar RF energy with saline-coupling to achieve large surface area and/or cavitary ablation (to kill cancer) and coagulation (to stop bleeding), all delivered through a simple, single-use, hand-held device. Innoblative has received first place in numerous case and business plan competitions, including first place in M2D2 $100,000 Challenge (2016), NCIIA BME Idea Award (2014), Northwestern University’s Venture Challenge (2014), University of Texas Global Venture Labs Investment Competition (2014), and won “Best Business Plan” in University of Oregon New Venture Championship (2014).
I have an MBA from Kellogg School of Management, a Masters of Engineering Management from Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, and a BS in Neurobiology from University of Wisconsin – Madison.
Lorena Arathoon: I’m a healthy snacks lover, mother of two (including a one-month-old baby boy) and creator of experiences. I’m the CEO and cofounder of Snackerie, a healthy snacks startup based in Guatemala. We launched our first product in Guatemala, TASU Chips, a crunchy flavor-packed snack made with 100% fruit, after I graduated from Kellogg over five years ago. Since then, we’ve launched two additional products – fruit rollups and crackers, both healthy snacks, and have expanded to other countries, including El Salvador, Venezuela and Mexico.
More broadly, I truly enjoy creating experiences for all users and customers who I encounter, in different parts of my life. From creating unique products for our customers at Snackerie, designing memorable classes for the students who take my class at a local university, to producing conferences for women entrepreneurs as the current ambassador to the local chapter of Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, I am passionate about delivering exceptional experiences that impact others around me.
It’s been a year like no other. What skills and/or principles have helped you navigate this year?
TW: Adaptability. This is always important as an entrepreneur, but particularly important during a tough time like the past year. We had to adapt to changes like having a clinical study put on pause, and find ways to stretch a dollar to keep the company progressing.
LA: Creativity and resilience were present, many times combined, in most areas of my life in 2020. During periods of lockdown down here in Guatemala, creative ways to use our time and physical spaces improved our family’s mood, which provided me with a clearer mind to make some tough calls at Snackerie. Similarly, at Snackerie, my team and I had many virtual moments where we put into practice thinking outside of our comfort zones to produce new solutions to constraints caused by the pandemic, while we quickly implemented and pushed through. We’re a stronger company because we were able to swiftly come up with these solutions and some of those solutions have stuck with us even when some things are starting to go back to normal.
What specifically from your Kellogg experience has gotten you to where you are today?
TW: 1) The experiential learning classes at Kellogg, like Venture lab, Medical Product Finance and Commercialization lab; 2) My experience in the Zell Fellows Program; 3) Competing and being successful in Northwestern University’s competitions — winning NU’s Venture Challenge and being a winner and finalist for Kellogg’s Innovation Award — had a big impact on my and Innoblative’s growth.
LA: Collaboration was ever-present at Kellogg, both inside the classroom and in all the student clubs and groups that I was part of, and it continues to be important, especially as a small player in the food industry. One collaboration I’m particularly proud of is one with a small branding agency based in South America, ran by a fellow female entrepreneur. We were able to quickly develop our latest product in record time, virtually, in the middle of the pandemic. An important piece of this development was the packaging design, which we were able to get for a fraction of the cost, in the spirit of collaboration, because were both excited to be able to innovate, when most of the large CPGs were cutting down on their existing products.
Any advice to entrepreneurs just starting out?
TW: Take a chance. I took a picture with a sign saying this around the time of Kellogg graduation. There are so many great would-be entrepreneurs that just need to “take the leap” to just starting or running their venture full time. It’s risky, and it may fail, but many years after starting my first company, I look back and never regretted it.
LA: Find simple ways to validate the decisions that will shape your company, product or service, and most importantly, do it personally. Learning first hand from your potential users and customers early in your entrepreneurial journey is priceless and instrumental to some of the early decisions.