Tammy Lee launched a line of wearable cool therapy medical devices in February, 2020, and one month later, she had to shut down her new company due to Covid-19. It wasn’t the start she dreamed of for Xena Therapies. But then, Lee’s entire career is built on unexpected turns.
Lee studied journalism and political science and landed a job as a Washington D.C. news correspondent. She crossed over to politics to become press secretary for then U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, a “prairie populist” from North Dakota. “I loved helping to influence public policy.” In 2006, she ran for U.S. Representative of Minnesota’s fifth district and lost. “The way I ran that campaign opened the door to the next great opportunity.” Lee was hired by Northwest Airlines to oversee communications during the Northwest-Delta merger. Then after vice president roles with the University of Minnesota Foundation and Carlson, Lee was recruited for the role that changed her career trajectory. Recombinetics, a St. Paul-based gene editing tech startup hired Lee for its No. 2 spot. She led the government approval process for Recombinetics’ technology. When the company’s CEO left, she took over.
“I didn’t know anything about gene editing,” Lee says. “But what the board needed was someone who could tell the story of Recombinetics, raise capital and launch the company into the future. I knew how to raise money, and I knew how to tell a story.”
She raised $34 million for Recombinetics. That success led to the next opportunity, at Nanocore, a Red Wing, Minn. startup that was developing cool therapy devices made with “phase change material” formulated to 58 degrees. Lee says she fell in love with the products—particularly a vest designed to cool women experiencing hot flashes due to menopause.
But she left Nanocore in December 2019 after less than a year on the job. “It was a great product, but not the right business plan or access to capital.” In January, 2020, Lee launched Xena Therapies and hire back all 10 of Nanocore’s employees. She built out two product lines: Opal Cool wearable cooling devices for women—like the “Gal Pals” bra inserts; OnyxCool for orthopedic pain relief.
The plan was to start by selling into hospitals and rehab centers, but just weeks after Xena Therapies' launch, most were shut down due to the pandemic. Pivoting to direct to consumer was tricky—“The product is so new, people don’t know to search for it.” Lee says she made the decision to ramp up marketing. “While many were retrenching, I decided to double down on my investment.”
It’s slow going, but she says OnyxCool will soon make its QVC debut; Opal Cool is starting to get picked up by obstetrics and chiropractic practices. Lee estimates that the pandemic has set her business plan back only by about six months.
Lee says everything she does even today comes back to storytelling.
“What I think the common thread is for those of us who are entrepreneurs: we are naturally curious about learning about new things. And when you go into journalism, I think that’s your primary driver: you love to hear other people’s stories, you love to learn about them and you love to tell a story that is compelling to your audience. Founders and entrepreneurs are very much that way. They’ve got a story about a product that they want to tell the world.”
After our conversation with Lee, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Dan McLaughlin, director of the Center for Innovation in the Business of Health Care at Opus thinks that in the wake of Covid-19, more startups will take a consumer-driven approach to pain relief and med tech.
“A lot of health care system I grew up with has been turned on its head,” McLaughlin says. “A lot of people getting virtual care, and it works great. Direct to consumer is really strong…I don’t think we’ll ever sit in a waiting room for a doctor again.”