Three Biodesign Founders Reflect on their Journeys


Photo courtesy of Iris Tan Three of the Biodesign founders, (L to R) Ginger Graham, John Abele, and Bob Croce, graciously took the time to visit and speak with the Biodesign fellows a few weeks ago. From the depth of their combined wisdom and experience came many pearls about career, medical device innovation, and life.

Starting Out

It was slightly disconcerting to me, and possibly other aspiring medtech entrepreneurs, that Bob, Ginger and John had not nailed down medtech entrepreneurship as a career choice early in life. The sort of certainty that seems to be a requirement, or at least is greatly encouraged on university applications (think about all those essays starting with “My first-ever toy was Legos. I’ve wanted to be an engineer since before I could crawl.”) seemed suspiciously absent when they set off on their journeys. John sold light bulbs. Ginger wanted to be a veterinarian. And Bob had no idea what he wanted to do.

From this seemingly inauspicious beginning, however, emerged three giants in the medtech industry. For those of us just starting out, they offered several useful tips on career choices. “Pick your boss, not your job. Go where you can grow,” exhorted Ginger. The most important gift you can get for your career? “Brutal, honest feedback,” she said, and recommended a job in sales for a start, to nods from the others. “A sales job helps you understand tomorrow’s problems – even if they’re not expressed,” added John. Indeed, the founders agreed that every job is a sales job. Whether customers are internal or external, it is crucial to understand how people make decisions. Overqualified or uninterested? “Attend sales school,” suggested Bob as an alternative way to get exposure. John, a good connector, emphasized the value of finding the right partner for innovation. And Bob had some unconventional words of wisdom: “To be successful, do what you’re supposed to do.” That made no sense until he explained that people who get trained to do a job often start to take shortcuts as time goes by. Doing it right, said Bob, was the key.

Moving Ahead

For those itching to get on the fast track up the ladder, Bob had this to say: “If you’re respected by those who report to you, you’re respected by your peers, and you’re respected by those you report to, you will get ahead.” Giving employees a lot of responsibility but no authority was a good test of their ability to influence others, he revealed. So if you’re in the rank and file, the next time the boss makes you organize the year-end company party, don’t complain – you just might be in line for a promotion. Bob also talked about the value of niche markets. “There’s a danger for venture-funded companies,” he said. “They want the biggest market first, but customers are harder on you if you make a mistake there.” In niche markets, he explained, customers become your partners and can even help you design your product.

Further Education

If you’re eyeing an MBA, but wondering what value it could bring, chew on the panel’s insights on formal education versus experience. Ginger talked about getting frustrated in her company because there were several suggestions she made that couldn’t be implemented. Going to business school helped her to understand what could and could not be done in the company. But that degree alone is not a path to success. “Get an MBA if it helps your confidence,” she advised, while noting that performance and competence are valued more. Forming a network emerged as an equally important activity. The reason? “Change happens, and that’s an opportunity,” said John. Becoming a node in a network, the go-to person for link-ups to others, put him in a unique position to know, early on, what new projects people were working on.

The Next Big Thing

So what did the panel think would be the next big thing? In a word, ageing, according to Ginger. “It’s a big umbrella. It affects everything.” The rise of individualized, mobile healthcare, combined with advances in next-generation genetic sequencing allowing the integration of a genomic response to therapy, was Ginger’s pick for the biggest healthcare trend currently. But she also recognized that the delivery of that healthcare would become increasingly important. John identified multi-modality diagnostic imaging technologies and image fusion as the most exciting areas for this time. The ability of an image to convey the relationships within data, and the tools to do that, would be important and lead to disruptive change, he said. For those who want to read more on the concept of disruptive technology, John recommended Clayton Christenson’s “The Innovator’s Prescription”.

Making Tough Decisions

A question was raised: What were the toughest decisions the founders had to make, and what were some things they said “no” to? Bob started the discussion by sharing that the toughest decisions he had to make usually involved people. For example, cutting a non-performing member from the team, rather than doing their job for them, was hard. John added that sometimes, we misjudge the integrity of a potential partner and – worse – our ability to change them. With Ginger, when she said “no” to something, it was because of personal internal conflict. She shared that as a vet, she was constantly battling customers’ wishes that were not in the best interests of their pets. So, she left that profession.

On Medtech

Asked to comment on the current atmosphere of doom and gloom in the medtech industry, the founders took the wider view that this was part of the cyclical industry trend. “True innovations that change the quality and cost of healthcare are still needed,” affirmed Ginger. Smart angels, she pointed out, offered many opportunities for unique funding. With regulatory hurdles mounting, some companies were forced to half-step off the FDA pathways and turn instead to alternative entry points to market, such as by offering medical foods and nutritional supplements.

Takeaways

My biggest takeaway from the session was that you don’t pick the medtech industry – the industry picks you. Becoming the type of person who listens to someone’s needs, who does it right, who doesn’t take shortcuts, who sticks out the down times, builds relationships and isn’t afraid to make tough decisions makes you the right choice – in any industry. And sooner or later, the medtech community recognizes that and somebody pulls you in, just as it did with Ginger, John and Bob.

One response to Three Biodesign Founders Reflect on their Journeys

  1. Letter from the President, 2012 « Biodesign Alumni

    […] Event was exceptional. Our alums had the opportunity to sit down with medtech legends such as John Abele, Ginger Graham, Bobe Croce, Eberhard Grube, and Simon Stertzer. Our Annual Event Panel Discussion with the Ardian Leadership team – including Andrew […]

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