Photo: Lea Ellermeier Nesbit is in the middle
By Virginia Mungovan
When Lea Ellermeier Nesbit ’94 saw a news report that technology giant 3M had bought a dental company for $97 million, she knew the time was right to sell her startup. Nesbit and her partner had launched Lingualcare in 2003 with no money or customers, but after four years their customized orthodontic braces had successfully gone from concept to reality.
The product was unique because it was 100 percent customized, making it easier for orthodontists to place it on the back side of the teeth, completely hidden from view. Lingualcare was not only manufacturing and selling these braces, the company held several patents related to the dental technology.
Nesbit knew she had a valuable product, but she didn’t wait for 3M to approach her. Instead she tracked down the investment banker who made the $97 million deal and hired him to help sell her company. 3M presented a cash offer for Lingualcare in 2007, and Nesbit and her partner decided to sell.
Getting to that point was not easy, though. “I didn’t get here on the straight path, that’s for sure,” laughed Nesbit, a Nebraska native.
Her father died when she was young, and Nesbit became estranged from her mother and left home at age 16. After that, Nesbit was left to her own devices.
“I dropped out of high school,” she said. “I had to. I needed to get a job.” While working, Nesbit earned her GED and even attempted college at the age of 17. “College didn’t go well,” she said. “I came back to work as a short order cook for a hotel in the morning and I sold shoes in the afternoon.”
But Nesbit did not believe this was all life had for her. “I decided I was meant for more,” she explained. At 19 years old, Nesbit took another try at college and never looked back – earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at El Paso and her MBA from Thunderbird School of Global Management.
“Coming out of Thunderbird I was changed. Thunderbird made the world a smaller place for me. I wasn’t afraid of not being able to figure it out,” Nesbit said. “You realize it’s just about people and those people have the same hopes and dreams and fears that you have.”
Her T-bird education helped her receive two job offers — one from a Midwestern grain company and another from a startup computer software company in Berkley, California. She chose the startup. “The energy there was completely different,” she said. “They had a ‘we can change the world’ attitude. I liked the idea that I could really make a difference.”
Nesbit stuck with the software marketing industry until 2000, when she jumped into health care. “I never planned anything,” she said. “I’d like to say I did.” As the VP of sales and marketing for healthcare technology company OraMetrix, Nesbit met a German inventor and in 2003 they partnered up and started their own company, Lingualcare.
Raising capital was not easy, Nesbit said, “but I had a Rolodex and a business plan and I raised money little by little.” Her first investor came by surprise. She had just landed in Frankfurt, Germany to meet with a group of German investors when someone in the airport caught her eye. “He was the most well-known dentist in the world and I ran into him at the Admirals Club at Frankfurt Airport.”
Nesbit told him about her company. “He got so excited about the product and asked what he could do to help,” she said.
Her meeting with the German investors also went well and after raising half a million dollars, her company was able to launch their orthodontic product into the dental services market.
After the sale to 3M, Nesbit was asked to stay on as the president of the operating unit. She accepted, and stayed for more than years before deciding to take some “time off.”
Time off in Nesbit’s book meant starting a small dental distribution and consulting business called Celadon Dental. Within a year, she had embarked on another start-up venture called, Natural Dental Implants with her former Lingualcare partner.
Natural Dental Implants produces anatomically shaped prostheses to replace nonfunctional teeth — a technology that provides an alternative to surgical dental implants. “I’m a little bit restless. I look around at things and think ‘that could be better,’” Nesbit said. “I like to have an impact and see the results.”
Nesbit also loves the customer intimacy of smaller companies. “I am very inquisitive and I love helping people in their businesses,” she said. “I feel very fortunate to be where I am. I feel like a conduit. My job is not to hoard stuff — knowledge, money, success. It’s what I learned at Thunderbird. You become a global citizen.”
One way that Nesbit plans to share her knowledge is through what she calls a “quasi memoir,” a business book through which she can share her entrepreneurial experiences and even promises a few laughs. Nesbit hopes her story will encourage other entrepreneurs. “It doesn’t matter where you start,” she said. “It matters where you finish.”
With a resume full of “something from nothing” successes, how does this T-bird alumna define success? “I think success means liking who you have become,” Nesbit said. “It is not about how many dollars you have in your bank account. It’s being happy with how you spend your day and having something to offer people.”
Nesbit loves how film director Nora Ephron puts it: “Above all, be the heroine of your life.”
Editor’s note: After finishing her Thunderbird coursework in 1990, a case of the chicken pox caused Lea Nesbit to miss her computer competency exam. Her 1994 graduation year is a reflection of when the exam was completed.