Leadership Strength Built on Generational Knowledge & Passion
Jamie Grooms and Jonelle Toothman, though a generation apart, discovered a common passion for the science behind improving health care. He was looking for a developing leader and she was in search of a new challenge. Their lunch meeting led to a founding partnership of NeXtGenTM Biologics, Inc. The medical device company that grew out of their discussion is taking a novel approach to regenerative medicine, capitalizing on the healing properties found in a naturally sourced extracellular matrix — or ECM.
Armed with a bachelor’s degree in biology more than 30 years ago, Grooms launched his career in health care, working for tissue donation and grafting companies. The more he learned about the technology of tissue healing and bone reconstruction, the more he wanted to improve on patient care. Soon his scientific path merged into the business of health and medical products. His career achievements helping to bring pivotal medical device companies to life is well-‐documented by the success of Gainesville startup companies like RTI Surgical, Inc., that grew a global implant market, and AxoGen, Inc., where he served as board chairman for 8 years. Grooms honed his business and early CEO leadership skills the hard way transitioning his roles between science and business, always learning on the job. He learned that successful development of a new technology begins with one question. “Does it have a calling?” asked Grooms. “You have to look at what’s currently on the market, and what opportunity this new technology offers,” said Grooms. “It must be substantial and add significant value to the user to have a calling.”
Attending a scientific presentation, he learned about a new ECM material that caught his attention. He had spent his career investigating ECMs, searching for a source having the properties being presented. He wasn’t quite ready to launch himself into another new business venture, but with his 30-‐years of experience in the extracellular matrix market, he knew this was a significant new technology. He licensed the patent for future development.
“Then, I met a unique leader — Jonelle Toothman,” said Grooms. “When you have a unique opportunity drop in your lap, and then you find the right leader, you change plans.”
While earning her degree in journalism and mass communications at Marshall University, Toothman lost her sister who had been suddenly diagnosed with a rare brain tumor. This changed her career thoughts, making her the first in her family to think about health care and medicine. Upon graduation, she began working for Pfizer, Inc., where she learned everything from sales and marketing to the pharmacogenetics of disease. She even trained in hospital operating rooms, gaining knowledge about neurosurgery and medical devices. Following Pfizer, there were more opportunities. She felt ready for a leadership role in something she could be passionate about and began searching. Late 2013, a colleague introduced Toothman to Grooms, who she describes as one of the most humble people she had ever met.
“I didn’t know who this man was across the table. I didn’t know about his successful startups or that he was a biologist,” said Toothman. “He never used ‘I’ or ‘me,’ it was always ‘us’ and ‘we’ when he talked about his career path.”
What started as an introductory lunch, turned into a 3-‐hour meeting that ended with Grooms asking her to look at his patent and come back with her thoughts on marketability.
She spent a week-‐and-‐a-‐half studying the patent, conducting her own market research analysis and learning more about Grooms’ business background. When they met again, she reported that given the clear market potential combined with his past success, she wasn’t going to give her appraisal until they shook hands and became partners. The title CEO never crossed her mind, but that’s exactly what Grooms had in mind and offered. Their new partnership began and NeXtGen was Incorporated in April 2014.
An ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, wrote, “To lead people, walk behind them.” Now, with the right mentor behind her – Toothman was ready to lead in a new role. “I’m still learning every single day. As an experienced CEO and mentor, Jamie has allowed me to grow and walk through challenges, so I could learn for myself,” said Toothman, adding, “But I know if I’m stuck – he’s there.”
She has learned that forging a partnership built on trust takes time, energy and patience. She sees how Grooms’ mentorship and willingness to pass on his skills and knowledge, has set a great example that has had a ripple-‐effect that creates a supportive team culture within their organization. Seven years later, as CEO, Toothman has accelerated and maneuvered the company from proof of concept toward commercialization with the agility of a young race car driver. Raising over $13 million in startup capital, she has assembled a world-‐class team to commercialize an innovative healing technology to improve upon patient care. “I’ve worked the hardest I’ve ever worked, traveled the most I’ve ever traveled, made the least money I’ve made in recent years, — and it’s still the best job I’ve ever had,” she said.
After clearing so many hurdles though, Toothman is excited about the next steps in developing the technology’s full potential in a variety of new applications for optimum patient care and healing.
“I’m honored to be a part of a company from development to completion, working with a technology so significant that it can be life changing for many patients,” said Toothman. “I dream of the day when a child who suffers a traumatic injury, heals without disfiguring scars.”
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