Michigan Ross Course Helps Startup Attract Nearly $10M in Funding

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Ann Arbor-based startup Aquaro Histology recently landed $9.8 million in seed funding. It was a great moment to celebrate — and it was helped along with the support of a class at Michigan Ross.

FIN 329 629, Financing Researching Commercialization, is for MBA and BBA students. Every fall, they analyze 50 relatively new companies and select 15 of the most promising to work with and learn from throughout the semester.

“We try to impart a systematic way to help these businesses organize themselves, do research, work on financial theory of early stage financing, and learn tips for best approaching investors,” said David Brophy, finance professor and director of the Office for the Study of Private Equity Finance, who leads the course. Nearly 200 companies and 900 BBA and MBA students have worked with the class over its 13 year history.

Aquaro Histology worked with the class in Fall 2016, when the company was working on its first round of seed funding. The startup provides an almost completely hands-free technology for placing tissue samples on a slide, an otherwise time-consuming process that has been done by hand for more than a century. It often causes stress injuries on technicians’ hands, wrists, and necks, and it’s not exactly a desirable job: More technicians are retiring than are entering the workforce.

Although Aquaro had an excellent technological advancement that would fulfill a need in the industry, it needed help getting started in the funding process. That’s where the students of came in.

Working with Professor Brophy and class mentors (serial entrepreneurs, both local and national)  who have worked with the class in the past), the student team helped the company improve its pitch presentation to investors and understand that status of the market.

“I learned so much,” said Alberto Elli, who was Aquaro’s CEO at the time. “Working with this class exponentially increased my network. Plus, I learned technicalities specific to startups, all the dos and don’ts.”

Recently, the company raised a huge series A round — $9.8 million from Telegraph Hill Partners, a venture capital firm based in San Francisco that invests in life science, medical device, and healthcare companies.

The course serves as a powerful action-based learning opportunity for both companies and students.

“We first took Aquaro’s business model, stripped it down, and rebuilt it,” said Greg Lavigne, MBA ‘17. “We researched how the business fit into the greater environment of medical devices, and then tried to help them hone in and look at it from a different viewpoint than maybe they had done in the past.”

That included helping them create a more succinct, persuasive pitch to investors, figuring out their revenue stream, and determining where they fit into the marketplace.

Lavigne had launched his own company in the late 1980s — a data processing services company with clients as large as Blue Cross Blue Shield — and he found the course to be a modern primer on entrepreneurship.

“When I started a company, things were a little different,” Lavigne said. “You didn’t go out and get financing to get your company up and running, and there wasn’t a lot of money put in for research. You just basically had to start making money from the beginning.

This course gave me a completely different understanding of a way to get a long-range, or maybe a mid-range, company up and running more efficiently and effectively.”

This kind of real-world learning opportunity is exactly what attracted Lavigne to Michigan Ross.  

“It’s is exactly the type of useful immersion for people who are interested in the venture capital and the entrepreneurial space,” he said. “A lot of theoretical classes just aren’t very useful to small business people. If you are interested in starting a business, this is the kind of class you need to take.”

Learn more about Ross Experiences in Action-Based Learning