What does the Higgs Boson have to do with the Successful Implementation of a Medical Technology?


When the first question made its way down the panel to Brook Byers (of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers), he momentarily ignored the topic at hand to posit: “In a room full of Biodesign Alumni, my hunch is there are a lot of people in here with an engineering or science background.”

Following some nods throughout the audience, he lurched into what can only be described as a good old-fashioned Higgs Boson joke: “So a Higgs Boson walks into a Catholic Church, and the Priest says, ‘We don’t allow your kind in here!’”

But then, instead of finishing the joke as you might expect, he asked: “And the Higgs replied…?”

Realizing this was actually a pop quiz of sorts, a few people from the audience shouted out something to the effect of: “You can’t have mass without me?”

The test wasn’t over. He then threw out something about a photon going through security at an airport…

“I’m just traveling light” yelled out several joke finishing alumni.

It would be an understatement to say Brook Byers was on the ground floor of healthcare investing in the Valley. In 1984, he established the first ever life sciences venture investment group at KPCB. This group has since invested in and helped build 110 life sciences companies, which in turn have improved the quality or duration of countless peoples’ lives around the world.

And 30 years later at a Biodesign alumni members meeting and panel, with two admittedly corny science jokes, Brook exemplified what would soon be a major take-home point of his advice to the entrepreneurs in the room: know your audience.

The central focus of the panel session – moderated by Michael Ackermann – was to allow some critical members of the successful OptiMedica team share their experiences and wisdom. OptiMedica was an ophthalmology-based technology company that developed – among other tools – the game-changing Catalys® Precision Laser System. This is a femtosecond laser-assisted cataract surgery system that offers a reproducible, noninvasive technique to replace the least predictable and most technically demanding steps of conventional cataract procedures.

Next to Brook on the panel was the company’s founding physician, Mark Blumenkranz, a Stanford Ophthalmologist and unrelenting inventor. Next to him was Mark Forchette, the CEO that sold the company to Abbott for $250M – plus substantial earn out potential – back in 2013. These three bright and insightful people were able to share some tips and learnings from three very different perspectives, which made for a very useful and broad-reaching session. Here are some highlights:

Brook Byers

Know your audience is a commonly repeated adage, but Brook took it one level deeper with respect to how entrepreneurs should approach and pitch venture capitalists. Brook explained why he was a good target for investment for the OptiMedica founders. Not only had he previously invested in ophthalmology companies, but he had personally suffered from eye problems in the past. He then went on to nail this point home:

“If you are looking for an investor for your heart project, find an investor who survived a heart attack!”

Brook stressed that so many entrepreneurs ask him for a meeting to talk about a space in which he has never had any interest. This screams: “I haven’t done my homework”, and may likely be a waste of time for both the investor and the entrepreneur.

Beyond this, it is important to know that Brook’s most precious resource is his own time. He explained how his occupational obligations are (in order): existing CEO’s, then investment partners, and finally looking at new deals. So when it comes to looking at something new, he wants to get down to the brass tacks of it as quickly as possible.

“I don’t need to look at 50 slides in a first meeting. Show me the raw data from your physician interview notebook. The feedback from future customers will be orders of magnitude more important that the slides. Plus this will tell me if you have done your homework.” From this specific example, a more general lesson can be gleaned: when in an early conversation with a potential new investor, really make sure to focus on the most key aspects of your story in a time-effective way. You don’t have to tell the entire story in one sitting.

Mark Blumenkranz

As Dr. Blumenkranz shared the fascinating story behind the development of OptiMedica’s multiple technologies, it quickly became clear that this guy is super-human. His fellow panelists described him as a “conscious narcoleptic”. Because the man sleeps just 4 hours a night due to his extremely busy lifestyle that includes full-time patient care while starting successful health technology companies on the side, in any given meeting, he will often seem to be asleep. But don’t take that as an excuse to say something incorrect, as he is known for snapping out of his temporary slumber to correct people. I should mention that he was rather alert and awake on this particular panel.

Be ready for unexpected results:

In addition to the intrinsic motivational power a guy with that type of drive has, he provided some useful nuggets for the technologists in the audience. He explained that the original intent of one of their laser systems was to mimic the burns created on the eye by existing lasers, but to do so in a quicker and more operator independent fashion. In order to get this improved workflow, the technology had to deliver the bursts of energy in much quicker (and therefore less energetic) bursts. At first, it seemed like these bursts were much too weak in comparison to the status quo. Upon further investigation under a microscope, they learned that these weaker burns were actually cleaner and better for the patient than burns created by existing lasers. With this, they built a system with much improved workflow that also created better lesions – a home run.

“It never turns out the way you planned it, but when the unexpected shows up, sometimes you have to be clever enough to recognize it as a positive, and capitalize on it.”

Mark Forchette

Mark was a first-time CEO when he was hired to take over at OptiMedica. He had been running the global surgical and pharma business unit at Alcon. When he was successfully recruited by Brook and Dr. Blumenkranz, he quickly realized that being a CEO at a smaller company is very different from running a business unit at Alcon. Among many substantial differences discussed, he nailed the point home rather whimsically:

“All the sudden, I am responsible for everything…even watering my own plants”.

The importance of building company spirit?

A recurrent theme to which Mark returned multiple times during the talk was the importance of instituting the right culture into the company.

Mark stressed that when your company is a David attempting to overthrow multiple, entrenched goliaths, you have to deliver a game-changing technology. “Heavyweight fights are not won by decisions.” In other words, an incremental benefit won’t suffice. So, in order to be successful, the company spirit had to involve swinging for the fences.

At many steps along the way they had to make difficult decisions that involved lengthening timelines in exchange for product improvements. If an entire organization – from the board room to the engineering lab – doesn’t share this spirit, then this type of decision and execution isn’t possible. It is clear that Mark injected this spirit into the everyday culture of the workplace. This means allowing every employee to risk failure in order to potentially make a huge contribution. It was clear from numerous stories that this spirit was contagious, and as a result the company was full of home run hitters.

The result of this spirit and hard work was illustrated best by an anecdote Mark shared about the first real unveiling of the femtosecond laser technology at an ophthalmology conference in Barcelona. Mark described how they were finally going to show off “THE Video” that showed the laser in action. Instead of watching the video during the presentation, Mark cycled toward the front of the room to watch the physicians’ reactions.

“In unison, hoards of Spanish ophthalmologists’ jaws literally dropped, and I knew we were off and running”. That was the turning point that got them on the cover of magazines, and eventually helped lead to their very successful acquisition by Abbott.

Other notes:

  • By building a culture that is not afraid to fail if the right homework has been done, you can drive your team to go after the white-hot risk
  • Get the product right before you start selling
  • It takes just as much time to develop a small product as a large one, so start with the large one!
  • When things go wrong and you get an unexpected result, look at it as an opportunity because necessity is the mother of invention

The Right Team

Of course, this success story was riddled with stops, starts and pivots not entirely captured in this summary. Those events are typical. What is more important, more unique in this particular story, is the team members that made it happen. The company representatives on the panel were a perfect example of three completely different types of people, with three distinct but complimentary skill sets, but all of whom share a similar spirit. This spirit, which was successfully injected into the company at large, was a common drive to do something big. And they did it in 10-15 seconds.

See more info on the OptiMedica Femtosecond Laser System here.

Fletcher Wilson is a Stanford Biodesign Fellowship Alum (’09-’10) and is currently founder/CEO of InterVene, Inc.


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