Musings with Angela MacFarlane

A Brief Glimpse Inside the Prolific Mind of ForSight Labs’ CEO/Founder

The Biodesign Alumni Association had the pleasure of dining with Angela Macfarlane at the October Tableside Chat.  She has spent time with some of the fundamental medical device innovators, from Tom Fogarty, to ExploraMed, to The Foundry.  She is currently the CEO of ForSight Labs, an ophthalmology incubator, that she helped to create with Eugene de Juan, Jr. MD and The Foundry in 2005.  ForSight Labs has spun out 5 companies over the last 6 years, each focused on a key clinical need in ophthalmology, including device and drug-device combinations.

On the early years

Angela emigrated from New Zealand as a child when her father came to Stanford as a researcher.  She inherited his curiosity and drive for knowledge.  She eventually attended law school and kept a full-time job at the same time at a Syracuse law firm. She describes herself as a fighter and survivor. This may have been what drew her to medical technology and patent law as a way for her to help early companies to fight and survive, with intellectual property being such a key component of value to small companies.

After several years helping medical technology incubators in the Valley with IP protection and strategy, she was offered a position as an injury attorney in Wyoming and at the same time ForSight offered her CEO. She wondered if she should take the job.  The moment of truth came while driving through the redwoods, a fine mist lingering at every turn.  This was juxtaposed with Eminem (a favorite artist) on the radio asking her:

Look, if you had, one shot, or one opportunity

To seize everything you ever wanted, one moment

Would you capture it?

Or just let it slip……

After that the decision was remarkably simple. Stay comfortable, or step up to the challenge.

On success in the IP domain

  1. Learn the “story” around a particular patent, not just about the technology or particular embodiment; think from the inventors’ perspective in order to anticipate their strategy and future plans.
  2. Do not allow bad patents to issue (talk to experienced patent counsel about this…and make sure the claims you have pending are claims that are relevant and powerful for the technology you are pursuing).
  3. Hire an amazing patent attorney who is as equally invested in the idea/technology/company as you are. Good patents require passion of all participants.
  4. Balance the risks and benefits of Track One: a patent issued too early may be more narrow and impact patent life given FDA timelines; a patent issued too late may affect a successful exit in a space with a lower barrier to entry where a patent is crucial to valuation.

On mentors

Angela learned so much from Dr. Fogarty:  “He deals with the big problems, and holds onto them until they are resolved.  He does not blame. He doesn’t ignore or pass off problems. He brings a surgeon’s attitude of ultimate accountability to medtech/businesses  and a surgeon’s alternative thinking, which is required for innovation and on-the-fly problem solving in the OR.”

On being a successful CEO

  1. People really matter.
  2. Hire well, fire well, and focus on fit within the company.
  3. Recognize dysfunction, and remedy it.
  4. Balance tension and efficiency: “A leader is someone who balances energy and entrepreneurial spirit within a corporate setting.”
  5. Don’t hide from candor.

Thinking of applying to ForSight?

Here’s Angela’s ideal candidate:

  1. Bold and curious, driven by sense of urgency and purpose.
  2. An ability to be vulnerable and to know when to call for help; authenticity matters.
  3. One who can balance thoughtful disagreement with overall alignment on the corporate strategy.

On becoming a great leader

“Learn from the people around you.  Observe your team members and foster what you perceive to be good leadership qualities.  Leadership is not a traditional hierarchy.  It is individual accountability and ownership.  Leaders evolve; they aren’t installed. Leaders listen well, create alignment, invest in the ideas of others, and inspire motivation.”

And finally, the parting thoughts of the evening:

“Leadership is experience and wisdom applied to facts, in order to make the best decision you can within the appropriate risk tolerance to ‘take ground’. Indecision is a killer.”

Ryan Van Wert, MD is a post-doctoral fellow in pulmonary and critical care at the Stanford Medical Center and also serves as the 2012-2013 Cottrell Biodesign Innovation Fellow.


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