Mako Surgical co-founders reflect on their launch to $1.65B exit

Maurice R. Ferre, former CEO of Mako Surgical.
Maurice R. Ferre, former CEO of Mako Surgical.
Joe Rimkus Jr. / Miami Herald Staff

Strap in! The roller-coaster that Mako Surgical’s co-founders rode to incredible success was not for the weak of heart.

There were several “we should have quit” moments for Dr. Maurice R. Ferré and Rony Abovitz, co-founders of the homegrown, Davie-based medical device company specializing in robotic-assisted orthopedic surgery and implants. But they raised $350 million in private and public funding, including an IPO in 2008, and grew the company to about 500 employees and $100 million-plus in revenue before Mako was purchased by Stryker Corp. last year for $1.65 billion.

Ferré and Abovitz spent some time with the entrepreneurial community at the Brainfood event at The Lab Miami last week. Sponsored by Endeavor Miami, the Brainfood series brings in South Florida’s most successful entrepreneurs to share advice.

For Abovitz, the first “we should have quit” moment came when he and his team of 17 or 18 people were building a company that would be the precursor to Mako. Then Sept. 11 hit. All but one of their investors, some of them in lower Manhattan, pulled out. The team worked for no pay the next three to four months, driving around the country in a van with their robot. “To survive that period, we were forced to take difficult deals,” he said.

Ferré, who was the CEO, said when he came aboard in 2003, “we were out of money, we had to reinvent ourselves,” describing the day he had to split up the company. “Sometimes it was brutal.”

So what were their keys to success?

“You have to have a really good idea. We brought in thought leaders to do due diligence on ourselves. Bring people in who will kick your idea to bits and see if you are still standing,” said Abovitz, who also advised entrepreneurs to read The Art of War — many times. “And don’t go into this unless you are going to be the best in the world. You have to be in that place... We had an underdog attitude,” Abovitz said.

Your story is important too, said Ferré. When he was looking for his first funding in California (after finding none at home), he pitched first to the venture capitalists he least cared for in order to practice and perfect his pitch: “Be vigilant about your story. Be frugal with your money. Set up milestones and show a track record. Find mentors.”

To find talent, they looked worldwide, recruited in the winter and hired brilliant off-the-radar scientists and technologists. “We built relationships with Harvard, Stanford, MIT. Hire the No. 1 or No. 2 grad student and put the professor on your advisory board,” said Abovitz, who is starting a venture called Magic Leap in Hollywood.

Wall Street was another wild ride, with 2008 being a challenging time to go public, to put it mildly. Even with the stock bouncing between $10 and $45, somehow you have to tune that out, said Ferré: “The people that matter are your customers.”

Ferré doesn’t question that selling Mako was the right thing to do for shareholders, and he is bullish about the future of robotics in healthcare. “We are in a golden age of opportunity,” said Ferré, who has invested in three robotics startups. He also sees huge opportunity in wearable technology and data mining.

Follow @ndahlberg on Twitter.

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