Hanson Gifford Shares Tales of An Illustrious Career

by | Nov 9, 2021 | Thought Leadership

Foreword: The following is an abbreviated and edited transcript from the latest Medtech Trailblazers, the real stories behind the Innovators, Fogarty Innovation’s series of casual, in-depth conversations aimed at discovering the people who have forged our industry. To view part 1 of the videocast, click here.

Hanson Gifford, CEO and managing partner of The Foundry, is perhaps best known as a co-founder of this iconic Silicon Valley-based incubator that has blazed the path for numerous successful medtech companies, developing cutting-edge treatments that address a broad range of large, unmet clinical needs. Its portfolio companies include Evalve, Concentric, Ardian, Emphasys, Twelve, Nuvaira and Forsight Labs. The impact is extensive: To date, The Foundry has launched more than 20 companies that have created over $3 billion in shareholder value; the companies and therapies developed employ more than 1,000 people; and its team boasts more than 500 patents. 

Dubbed as a “walking encyclopedia of medtech experiences, innovations and impact,” Hanson has been directly involved with or founded over 30 companies in the past 40 years, mentored many of today’s medtech leaders and is now also a venture capital partner at Lightstone Ventures.  

Andrew Cleeland (AC) had the pleasure of chatting with Hanson (HG) to learn more about his extraordinary career, knack for forming and launching companies and lessons learned along the way. The following is an excerpt of his interview. 

AC. Let’s start with your formative years. Tell us about your childhood. 

HG. I was born here in Silicon Valley at Stanford Hospital. In fact, I was born in my father’s fourth year of medical school (at Stanford) when he had just finished his OBGYN rotation. The doctor encouraged him to deliver me, which he did. I spent my younger years in Menlo Park and when I was seven and a half, we moved east to Long Island for a couple of years, then to the town of Dartmouth in Southeastern Massachusetts.

AC. What was special about growing up in Dartmouth?

HG. Dartmouth was a sailing mecca, so I spent a number of years growing up where I could sail every day except in the middle of winter. It was an incredible learning experience, having that freedom to sail off across the bay to islands with friends, being totally independent. As a teen we had some hair-raising experiences as well when we shouldn’t have been out there and the Coast Guard came looking for us. 

That instilled early on a sense of how to problem-solve and stay calm when facing risky situations — when you are starting a company there’s nothing but uncertainty and risk. And the first step is stay calm. The second step is to figure out how to manage and minimize those risks and create a team that can create valuable new therapies.

My experiences of going to new places and facing storms or other critical issues at sea was good training for the challenge of starting companies. 

AC. Let’s talk about prep school and college. Why was your time at Phillips Exeter Academy so impactful?

HG. Until then, school had been mostly a struggle against boredom, but once I got to boarding school, all of a sudden I was in a situation where everyone was smarter than me, and I had to scramble just to keep up. Surviving and succeeding was a great experience and a real challenge for me, coupled with the chance to be immersed in an environment where all day long I had friends to do things with and work and learn together.

Then I went off to Cornell where I have to say my academic career was completely undistinguished. As somebody joked, I think I graduated in the top 80% of my class. Because I really loved to build things, I studied mechanical engineering. And because my father wanted me to be a doctor, I also took all the pre-med classes. And because I loved the water, I rowed on the crew.

AC. Tell us about your earliest jobs: You went from aerospace and defense to medtech companies – how did that happen?

HG. During my college years I got my pilot’s license. I was completely enchanted with flying, with its challenges and all the different things you have to be thinking about at once. Because of that interest, I got a job at General Dynamics in Fort Worth, Texas, where the F-16 fighter jet was being made. And that was a good chance to cement my engineering experience because of the fantastic technology being used to make the planes. 

But I also quickly realized that wasn’t going to be a career for me. My stepmother worked at a small medical device company in Mountain View, California, called Oximetrix. I was given a lot of responsibility and had a real introduction to the startup experience.

After a little over a year, I joined Devices for Vascular Intervention (DVI), which was started by John Simpson, a visionary leader and mentor who really taught me about how to set a goal and work towards it without getting flustered. Allan Will then came in as CEO, and Tom Fogarty was on the board. It was a great opportunity to work with a very innovative product. 

AC. How did your role evolve at DVI and what was next?

HG. I had the chance to design a product from beginning to end, including the testing and iterating. But after four years on the R&D side, I really wanted exposure to the rest of the business to understand all the different challenges. Allan agreed to put me in clinical research, and I went around the country training cardiologists to use the coronary atherectomy catheter and getting their feedback as it went through the trial. As that trial concluded and we were on the verge of FDA approval for the coronary device, I was placed in marketing, which was a complete “fish out of water” experience for me, yet fascinating to learn the challenges of connecting a product to the market in a way that succeeds.  

The next job came after John asked to me run a company he had an idea for – Cardiovascular Therapeutic Technologies, a drug delivery catheter company. I was both flattered and terrified, but I jumped into it, and I was very fortunate the company was acquired by Eli Lilly/ACS within a year. 

At that point, my wife and I really wanted to live overseas, so at John’s encouragement, I went to see a physician in Munich who wanted to start a company and before you know it, I was running it. That was a pretty crazy but powerful growing experience as I had never done business in the country and didn’t speak the language at first. But it also had its positives as we learned German and made new friends. Our first daughter was even born there.

After that adventure, we came back to the U.S. I joined Heartport, which was another great experience. We developed some really great technologies that are still in use today and being sold by Edwards Lifesciences to perform less invasive heart surgery.

AC. Tell us about launching The Foundry.

HG. The Foundry is really the brainchild of Allan Will, who has been an amazing mentor to many, including me. I was initially skeptical, but I was ready to work with people I really trusted, and that was Allan. So I jumped at the chance, and we started in the guest cottage at my house. After six months we brought in Kara Liebig to help run the books and Mark Deem who set us up with a facility and quickly became my partner in crime in coming up with ideas to start companies. 

The model is based on building one great company at a time; first identifying lots of ideas, then picking the best one and forming a company. Over 23 years, we’ve started 19 companies at The Foundry and several more at ForSight Labs, so roughly, one a year. 

AC. Let’s talk about the value of teams and the difference between startup companies and larger companies. 

HG. There’s no room in a startup for people who aren’t effective team players. There used to be this dichotomy between whether you take the brilliant technical genius or the person who works well with others. And the fact is that in a startup, nearly everybody needs to be both. The companies typically have a life cycle where employees are there between three to six years. But, as each new company is formed, the founders think of who they really enjoyed working with and bring those great team members from the last company into the next one.  

At The Foundry, when a company doesn’t work out, we go into overdrive to make sure each of the team members finds a great new opportunity. And it pays off in that when we’re looking to start a new company, we’ve been very fortunate to attract great people back. 

AC. You’ve now entered the realm of the venture capitalist. Why?

HG. You need money to succeed, and frankly, the reason I became a venture partner at Lightstone was that I wanted to do everything I could to help them raise money so they could in turn fund my projects and other projects like them. But it is a fascinating challenge to identify successful new businesses and help grow them from a little more of a distance. 

Viewing things from the investor side gives insight into what they’re looking for. And it’s not just whether an idea is going to succeed, but other factors including if the leader is someone who is going to listen, collaborate and evolve to build a very successful company.

AC. In almost 40 years in this industry, what keeps you going?

HG. The mental challenges and experience of working with people to create new companies are just really self-actualizing, and as long as I can, I’m happy to do it.

I can look to mentors like Tom Fogarty, who could do anything, yet at age 87 is still coming in to Fogarty Innovation asking “What can we start today?” If we’re fortunate enough to have this opportunity, we should take it.

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