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 in-depth conversations aimed at getting to know the people who are forging, disrupting or changing our industry. To view part 1 of the videocast, click here; to listen to part 1 of the podcast, click here.
To say Allan Will has had an immense impact on our industry would be an understatement. Not only has he built a storied career, but he has made an indelible impression as a mentor to numerous medtech leaders and innovators.
A director at Fogarty Innovation, Allan is best known for his strong track record of founding, running, building and selling medical device companies. His illustrious career includes serving as CEO of eight Bay Area venture and private equity-backed startups; visionary and founder of The Foundry; founder or co-founder of 14 companies, including Evalve, Ardian and Concentric Medical; founding general partner at Split Rock Partners; and being named as an inventor on over 30 patents. A University of Maryland Distinguished Alumnus, he also has served on the MIT Entrepreneurship Center Shareholders Board and University of Maryland President’s Committee on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Over his 40+ year career Allan has provided mentorship to countless Bay Area medtech CEOs and takes great pride in having been honored with the Astia/Deloitte Excellence in Mentoring Award for mentoring women executives. He currently serves as executive chair of the board of EBR Systems and chair of the boards of Fractyl Health and SetPoint Medical.
In this interview, Allan (AW) sits down with Andrew Cleeland (AC) to explore what made him the leader he is today, his career superpowers – leadership and mentorship – and his advice for others in the industry.
AC. Tell us about growing up and how it has influenced your philosophies.
AW. I was born in Chicago, where my family lived in a community that was one of the nation’s first multi-religious, multi-racial, multi-ethnic neighborhoods in the country, which certainly wasn’t the norm in the fifties. This ability to embrace and celebrate diversity made it a tremendous place to grow up and had an incredible impact on me. My parents were certainly the greatest influencers on my life, and they placed very high importance on morals and ethics and how you treated others. That has really been the north star for my whole life.
AC. Let’s talk about college. You started at Washington and Lee University and then moved to the University of Maryland to study sciences and zoology.
AW. While at Washington and Lee, I became really intrigued by the sciences generally, but W&L’s classes were targeted more toward becoming a physician. The University of Maryland had a much broader curriculum, and for this among a number of other reasons, I transferred there.
I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do with my degree so I just chose classes that interested me. I also worked full time to pay for my education and one of my jobs was at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in a biochem lab – while I appreciated the experience, it made me realize I needed to work more directly with and around people.
After graduation, I still hadn’t decided on a path after graduation, so I sent letters to every state agency I could across the country that had to do with biology or zoology, animals or humans, but I didn’t get one letter of acceptance in return. Luckily, I had been coaching and refereeing with the recreation department throughout high school and college, so I had enough connections there to get a job teaching high school for a year. I taught everything from science and math to English and cosmetology and was also the assistant coach for the basketball team.
AC. Then you decided to go to MIT?
AW. I worked for four years before going back to school. After teaching, I worked in health research consulting in the early days of databases. The government had large research programs that were challenging to track so we were developing databases that were searchable by various topics. After about three years, I wasn’t any closer to knowing exactly what I wanted to do with my life so I decided an advanced degree would help and that a business degree was the most versatile option.
MIT was a great place to go to school. I went through the Accelerated Master’s Program, where in 12 months you took two years of classes and did your thesis. It was pretty intense, but it was a small class – only about 42 of us – all of whom had already worked for at least several years, so we grew pretty close and the educational experience was outstanding.
AC. How did you get the opportunity to lead DVI and what was your experience like?
AW. I was interested in healthcare and after I graduated, I took a job at Abbott Labs in corporate planning and development. That’s where I started my work in medical devices. I worked there for five years and then became the CEO of Devices for Vascular Intervention (DVI).
To provide a little more context, when I was at MIT, one of our professors had us do a project which involved modeling the adoption of a new medical technology, angioplasty. At the time, there had only been about 5,000 angioplasties done. When I went to work at Abbott, one of my first assignments was to write a new business plan to diversify the company out of their hospital products business, which was largely commoditized. I recommended Abbott get into interventional cardiology, interventional radiology and arthroscopy, drawing on the interest I had developed doing my project at MIT.
As a result of that, we made a minority investment in Boston Scientific, which at the time was a $12 million revenue company. We struck a deal where we could acquire BSC after nine years, and in that interim, Abbott funded Boston’s capital needs.
Then, in 1986, I was approached by John Simpson to come to DVI. I had angioplasty knowledge from MIT and Abbott, and coincidentally, my dad had developed coronary artery disease, so I also had a personal motivation. Joining DVI was a pretty easy decision as I recognized it was a great opportunity, I was familiar with the field and how could one turn down a chance to work with John Simpson and Tom Fogarty. At the time, I was running a $50 million pressure monitoring business for Abbott and was interested in working for a smaller company where I could have more control over building the business and the corporate culture. I joined DVI when there were only 16 employees, and the rest is history.
DVI was a great learning experience as I had the opportunity to take it from the Series B financing to selling it to Eli Lilly three years later, then growing it for five years achieving an annual run rate of a $100 million, while building a team of about 600 people. I was just really lucky to connect with John Simpson and some of the other individuals who were involved including Dick Kramlich (founder of NEA), Bill Bowes (founder of US Venture Partners) and Annette Campbell-White (founder of MedVentures). That was also when I first met Tom Fogarty.
AC. Tom helped get you involved in your second company…tell us about that.
AW. My next venture was at a startup founded by Tom – AneuRx, a AAA stent graft company. Tom asked me if I’d run it, and coincidentally, there were 16 people there when I joined. A year and a half later we sold the company to Medtronic and a year and a half after that launched the product in the US and Europe. After initially being three years behind the competition, we received approvals simultaneously and our product took more than 80% market share, generating approximately $175 million the first year launched.
I give Tom huge credit for this success – he really understood the need he was trying to solve and worked with the engineers to provide guidelines around what they needed to do instead of telling them what to do. That’s what I think made the product and company so successful. I believe the stent graft products at Medtronic are still a very successful franchise, generating I would guess to be well over a billion dollars.
AC. Tell us about founding The Foundry and your vision for the organization
AW. Early in my startup life I had the privilege of working with John, Tom and also Paul Yock. My initial thought was how incredible it would be to get these three brilliant minds in one room in some form of an incubator. While that was unrealistic, I still felt there was a need to help innovators transform their ideas into companies more effectively. The original concept of The Foundry was to build a team that could take an idea from an inventor, like a physician or an engineer, and help them translate that into a company that could then bring that product to market and to the patients.
Initially 90% of The Foundry was funded by entrepreneurs and 10% by venture capitalists, which later flipped to 90% VC and 10% entrepreneur funding. That model also changed as we moved to serial financing. We put together a great team, which included Hanson Gifford, Mark Deem, Kara Liebig, Hank Plain and other very creative and talented individuals, and proceeded to form and launch companies. These included Evalve, the first transcatheter valve repair company, spearheaded by the late Ferolyn Powell, a fantastic CEO; and Ardian, another company of which I’m particularly proud as we were one of the first device companies to take on the challenge of directly competing for a pharmaceutical company market.
AC. The companies you spearheaded helped launch the career of over 30 CEOs. How did your approach to developing talent help create that?
AW. I don’t think I have a “magic eye” or secret formula for picking CEOs. I think you do the best job you can in hiring really talented people for specific roles, then put them in an environment that provides great learning experiences and mentor them the best you can. Those who are meant to become great CEOs develop into that along the way.
In terms of what attributes I think are important, first and foremost is to share a vision of being driven by the best interests of the patient. Also, when you’re young, you’re taught about the five “W” questions: who, what, when, where and why. I think that great leaders in an entrepreneurial environment spend a lot of time on the “why” questions, considering numerous options as they think about the issues: Why can’t this disease be treated differently? Why can’t the product perform more effectively? Why are things not working well? Why are people motivated or not motivated?
I have always tried to dig in at that level of detail to most issues that confront me and use these questions as I have conversations with my CEOs. With all that said, everybody does things differently, and I believe it is critically important to be authentic to your leadership style.
I also think I expect people to set high expectations and aim to achieve flawless execution, while accepting that we’re all going to make mistakes along the way. The key to me is how quickly you identify those mistakes, then fix them and learn from them. While making mistakes is inevitable and ultimately contributes to growth, I think success comes from owning them without being ashamed, then pivoting to move on quickly.
AC. What are you passionate about today?
AW. I’m passionate about the companies with which I’m working – Fractyl, which treats Type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases; SetPoint Medical, which treats inflammatory disease such as RA and MS; EBR Systems, which treats heart failure with a wireless pacemaker; and Fogarty Innovation, which is truly crafting a tremendous legacy for Tom. I’m passionate about my children and my loved ones, and I just want to live life to the fullest at this point. Therefore, when I become engaged in companies, I choose ones that are really going to make a major impact on human health.
AC. What do you wish you knew when you were starting?
AW. The most important words of wisdom I’d have for someone who wants to be a medical technology entrepreneur is not to do it because you want to make money or hold a glamorous entrepreneurial role. Do it because you’re passionate about treating patients and helping improve patients’ lives. Do it because you’re passionate about creating a stimulating, rewarding work environment for the employees. Do it because you’re passionate about providing better lives for your patients, your employees and the people around you. If that’s what drives you, I think at the end of the day you’ll find you’ve had a very satisfying life. You may or may not be financially rich, but you’ll have had a very rewarding career and be rich in many other intangible ways.