World class researcher launches first medtech startup

Caroline Cao never thought she’d grow up to invent things.

Today, the founder of Endo Guidance Technologies, LLC is working on the prototype of a lightweight, optical fiber shape sensor that would allow physicians in the operating room to track tools in real time for image-guided surgery, without exposing themselves or their patients to the radiation required by current methods.

It’s the first tech she has worked to commercialize.

“Things we invent in the lab don’t usually get to this point,” she said. “But this is both innovative and useful. It will change the way surgeons do work and will be a great benefit to the patient. And we’ll all become patients someday.”

Born in Vietnam, Caroline grew up in a stereotypical Asian education system heavily focused on math, she recalled. When she started university in Vancouver, Canada, her goal was to become a dentist.

While she was in university, her father had an aneurysm and fell into a coma. He eventually woke up and recovered, but she spent a lot of time in the hospital with him and his healthcare team.

“That’s when I became interested in med tech,” Caroline said. “I realized I wanted to build things to make a difference, to help people, things that would have a more immediate impact on health.”

She switched her studies, and found herself at the forefront of remote laparoscopic surgery — minimally invasive surgery that uses small tools and cameras to work on a patient, rather than cutting open their whole abdomen.

The first robots to perform laparoscopic surgery appeared in operating rooms in 2001.

Caroline, now a Wright State University professor of biomedical, industrial and human factors engineering, was recruited to Dayton from Boston in 2012.

Boston’s med tech market was very competitive and mature — but Ohio was hungry for startups, she recalled, specifically citing the Ohio Third Frontier funding. In 2016, she attended the first Dayton Startup Week.

“It was amazing, stimulating, energizing. It was my first exposure to a community of entrepreneurs, and they were very open and very passionate. I was surprised at how collaborative they were, sharing partners and contacts,” she said. “That’s when I decided it could happen here.”

When she’s not in the lab, Caroline can be found running or enjoying Dayton’s stellar performing arts, be it the ballet, opera or symphony.

Her advice to budding entrepreneurs is the same advice she gives to her students:

“Keep your options open, but know the value of hard work,” she said. “Just because it doesn’t work in the beginning doesn’t mean it won’t in the end. If it’s something you really believe in, don’t take no for an answer.”

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