A medtech startup owner's must-have traits
Amy Siegel, Co-founder, S2N Health
To assess the value of a diamond, an appraiser looks at the 5 C’s (Cut, Color, Clarity, Cash balance of Customer). Turns out the C word options for evaluating anything are virtually limitless. So, long desiring to write a blog topic about the Critical Constituent Components of the ideal emerging medtech CEO in a Clever but not too Challenging manner, I naturally turned to the letter C.
There have been many books, articles and probably blogs written about what it takes to corner the corner office. When that corner office is overlooking the HVAC system of a sub-sub-leased space crammed with tired-looking engineers, low-paid summer interns, 3 day old pizza, EBAY-purchased testing devices, duct tape-covered chairs, and the strewn parts of multiple cannibalized pieces of equipment, otherwise known as a startup medtech company, different rules apply.
Here are the 10 C words that best describe the truly effective small-co Medtech leaders:
Admittedly, confidence is a generic requirement of all great leaders, especially when the top job description includes fundraising. In medtech, the sheer number of parties who must be convinced of the company’s promising story (investors, thought leaders, professional societies, regulators, payers, and strategic partners, to name a few) is daunting. Most important, though, is the confidence to know when you are no longer confident in the path you are pursuing, in which case it is time to pivot and become super-confident about the new direction! Blog post on pivoting coming soon.
There is no substitute for just knowing your stuff across all functions of the company. While the ability to see the forest for the trees is an absolutely essential trait in the leader of a development-stage medtech company, that same leader better also know the genus, species and root structures of all those trees to help make the dozens of decisions and trade-offs that must be reached on a weekly basis. There is no room in a small medtech company for a telegenic figurehead (okay, well maybe not on the management team; that’s why the good Lord invented Advisory Boards).
Technology companies are often run and staffed by, unsurprisingly, techno-heads who are in love with the gizmo they have created because it is truly an awesome gizmo. The ultimate customers, when presented with said gizmo, are thinking about three things: 1. Is your gizmo inadvertently going to kill anyone, 2. How much does your gizmo cost, and 3. Why should they care at all about your gizmo. Misperceptions about the clinical context in which the gizmo will be used can send really smart development teams 100 miles per hour in the wrong direction.
Medtech entrepreneurs are generally older and not as prone to donning surf shorts as their IT counterparts, but in a small medtech company, the stuffed suit types stand out like penguins in the desert. Save the fancy duds for external meetings (even those dress codes have slackened) and try a tool belt on for size.
With so many moving parts (often literally) to developing and commercializing a medical device, and so much pressure from investors on time to revenue or exit, the nail-biting moments are guaranteed to happen on a regular basis. In these anxiety-filled situations, the calm medtech CEO will foster problem solving (for which the engineers on staff are hard-wired) rather than panic.
Calm works most of the time, but the R&D team will keep iterating designs and the clinical research team will keep refining the protocol and the regulatory consultants will keep waiting for responses and the attorneys will keep dawdling on the agreement UNTIL THE CEO GETS REALLY CRANKY. The cranky genie must be kept in the bottle and used only sparingly, but the capacity to unleash it at the appropriate time is essential.
The epitaph of many deceased medtech startups might read: “just couldn’t focus”. Lack of clarity on the company mission and the problem being solved is deadly all the way around. That doesn’t mean the focus never changes, sometimes dramatically with failures or great luck (okay, usually failures), but at any given point in time the leader of the company must project clarity of purpose both internally and externally.
Just because you are taking people’s lives into your hands with your new medical technology doesn’t mean you have to be super serious all the time! The long hours, the stress, the tedium of many steps along the way call for some investment in the fun department (as long as it doesn’t break the piggy bank!). No jokes with the FDA, though; they are like airport security.
One looks at the margins on most consumer items, and the short development times, and the seemingly effortless, benign decisions to be made, and one wonders why anyone would choose to lead a medtech company. To sign up for all that work and risk, you have to be a little Crazy. And maybe it is because you Care about making a difference in the world.