The Five Cardinal Sins of Pitching to Dr. Thomas Fogarty
When Dr. Thomas Fogarty is in the office, he holds meetings all day long. Not unlike the President, he is briefed moments before every meeting. With each new visitor, he brings a fresh enthusiasm to the table, an eagerness to listen and to be impressed. Everybody gets a fair shot, and many are successful—unless, of course, they commit a cardinal sin.
I recently sat down with Dr. Fogarty to discuss how he evaluates entrepreneurs that come in asking for support, and how, in some unfortunate cases, they might fail to impress him. Dr. Fogarty estimates that over the last 30 years, he has heard an average of 30 pitches a month. With some 10,000 pitches under his belt, who better to shed some light on what not to do when selling an idea? So, for all those medtech innovators out there in a perpetual “fundraising phase” (like me), here you have it:
1) “Don’t be a know-it-all”
Right away, Dr. Fogarty spouts out his first pet peeve: “All too often, people act like they know everything. Many entrepreneurs do this,” he adds, “but the younger ones are much worse at hiding it”. It is okay—in fact “preferred”—to admit what you don’t know and provide a plan for answering that question. He gave a knowing smile and described a time an entrepreneur came in and pitched a catheter system. When asked about patentability, the man assured Dr. Fogarty that he had done extensive searches and that he was sure there was nothing else out there like it. The problem was: Dr. Fogarty had already patented those embodiments years ago. The lesson here: don’t try to steal someone’s invention, ask them for money, and reveal that you haven’t even done a cursory patent search within the same 15 minutes.
2) “Don’t show disrespect”
Respect is very important to Dr. Fogarty, but he understands that everyone (at least on the surface) will show him respect. “Often after they leave, I’ll ask Rita (an administrative assistant), ‘How did they treat you?’ Because if respecting others, no matter who they are, isn’t second nature, I don’t want to work with them.” This one may seem obvious, but the motivation behind it actually takes a detour from your standard Judeo-Christian moral lesson. He told a story about how when he was a resident, he asked a “mop guy” to teach him how to clean the floor in the corner of an OR. He would later incorporate the principle behind a “swish” maneuver into multiple medical inventions. “You never know who will teach you something important, and if you don’t respect people because you think they are below you, you are missing out on a ton of lessons.”
3) “Don’t talk when you’re supposed to listen”
While he admits it is difficult to determine in a first meeting, Dr. Fogarty is always trying to gauge if you are actually listening to his feedback, or just waiting to cut in with a defensive explanation. “If you can’t listen, you can’t learn, and I have seen way too many ventures fail because the person in charge wasn’t able to listen to good advice.” Next time you pitch, slow yourself down, and don’t be afraid to listen.
4) “Don’t misrepresent yourself”
Dr. Fogarty says he doesn’t care what you wear to the interview or where you were educated, but he does care what you have done in the industry and how you did it. “If I am halfway interested in working with someone, after they leave my office, I’m going to make a bunch of calls.” A person armed with about three days and a network of connections spanning all relevant regions and generations is effectively industry omniscient. The point is, if you say you did something, you better have actually done it (it doesn’t count if you were “just in the room”). So be truthful. As a younger entrepreneur with less experience, I inquired about this somewhat defensively. He added: “If you haven’t done much yet in your career, that can be okay, as long as you are focused and know how to listen.”
5) “Don’t be narrow in your approach to solving the problem” (i.e. Show me you can think outside the box!)
In the first four sins, the underlying message to entrepreneurs is simple. Character, above all, is what counts. Listen, be sincere, be truthful, and be respectful. And be prepared to say “I don’t know”. And then, at the end of the interview, he admits that you need one more thing. It is a constructively defiant way of thinking, which allows you to see beyond the status quo, and envision an ideal solution to a problem. This ability to think outside the box has led to many of Dr. Fogarty’s inventions, and has made his name ubiquitous in the medical device industry. I recently had the pleasure of seeing this quality perfectly exemplified when the doctor experienced a salad dressing problem at a formal dinner:
Not a minute after the salad was served, he spilled balsamic dressing on a few critical locations on his shirt. The damage was diffuse and incurable. After explaining to the table that the necktie was originally invented to prevent this very problem, he grabbed a silk napkin and rolled it reluctantly into his collar.
For the next 20 minutes, person after person approached our table to say hello. Every time he turned to shake someone’s hand, his makeshift bib would fall to the floor. Finally, I surprised him (and myself) by blurting out: “If you are such a prolific inventor, how come you can’t seem to figure out this bib problem?” Without missing a beat, he bludgeoned a butter-knife through the corner of the silk napkin and fastened the readymade slit securely to his topmost shirt button. He grinned sheepishly at the rest of the table and said: “Now that was a pretty invasive solution. I have something less invasive at home.”
Fletcher Wilson is currently a resident at the Fogarty Institute for Innovation and a 2009-2011 Biodesign Innovation Fellow. He is co-founder of InterVene, Inc., an early stage medical device start-up company.