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From the classroom to launching the company

Knowles and WoodExperiential learning is at the heart of business education at UNC Kenan-Flagler. Throughout their studies in the Executive MBA program, physicians Martyn Knowles and Ben Wood (both MBA ’18) enjoyed a unique opportunity: launching a company that applies business principles to their profession of healthcare.

Knowles and Wood – who have been friends since starting medical school in 2003 – co-founded Operative Flow Technologies, which uses technology to address problems the surgeons noted in the operating room.

“With healthcare costs at an unsustainable level nationally, we have to look toward innovation for value creation,” says Wood, president.

Knowles, chief medical officer, adds, “Healthcare is an inherently difficult place for entrepreneurs because lives are on the line. It takes a lot of trust for a hospital to look at a product.”

The entrepreneurs’ initial product, OpFlow, is a cloud-based software platform that increases communication and cuts costs in the operating room. It also provides data and analytics that hospital administrators can use for performance improvement initiatives that generate value for the hospital system.

“We needed more than just two surgeons and an idea,” says Knowles.

So he and Wood decided to enroll together in the Executive MBA Program and focus on the entrepreneurship track.

“The program served as an incubator and accelerator for our product,” says Knowles. “We utilized our company as the basis for our class projects and were able to receive feedback from world-class faculty. Those relationships, cultivated by Ted Zoller and the School’s entrepreneurship program, enabled us get to the point where we were able to successfully launch our company before the end of our MBA program.”

One of the culminating events of the duo’s MBA career was winning the 2018 SoftLaunch Coaches’ Choice Award. UNC Kenan-Flagler awards the recognition at the completion of Zoller’s SoftLaunch class and workshops, during which students gain knowledge, skills and connections needed to launch a business. Coaches in the areas of marketing, strategy, finance and law consult with founders of competing early-stage companies in preparation for a final venture pitch to a panel of judges.

The SoftLaunch judges aren’t the only ones who see the value of OpFlow. After a successful pilot project, leadership team members at UNC Rex Hospital are engaged in contract negotiations with the OpFlow team to expand the use of the product. “We have received a great amount of excellent feedback from Rex and they are very excited about the data we provided,” says Knowles. “Future plans include expansion throughout the UNC Health Care system and continuation of discussions with local, regional and national hospitals to begin scaling the product.”

“The pilot was an opportunity for our proof of concept,” says Wood. “Alongside the technological expertise of our CEO, David Rowe, the MBA program catalyzed the development of our idea to a commercially viable product. One of the first markers of success was proving through the data what we thought would be true: that our solution would provide improved efficiency, cost savings and, ultimately, better patient outcomes.”

“If you have an idea, the best possible way to determine its viability is to enroll in the  UNC Kenan-Flagler Executive MBA program and put your idea to work,” says Knowles. “Between the network, the classes, the professors and the content, you come out well-versed in how to make your company a success.”