A Doctor’s-Eye View of Silicon Valley
What was a geeky doctor like me doing on an MIT Sloan entrepreneurship and innovation trek in Silicon Valley back in March? That was the big question, given that I’m 37 years old, trained as an anesthesiologist, and only started using a Twitter account a couple of weeks ago. Going on that tour was almost like being Alice in Wonderland—I was so out of place from the world I’ve lived in for the last decade.
Medical training, for all its excitement, is absolutely dreadful at teaching the importance of business and organizational process. It’s no surprise that physicians often find themselves complaining about trends, yet do little to make a change. If nothing else, we’re busy working in the clinics. It’s difficult to turn a new idea into reality. This is the problem I was faced with. I saw all these cool ideas, but I was clueless on what to do with them. Do I talk to certain people about it? Who would these people be? How do you put your idea into practice? How do you find time to do any of this?
The Sloan trip was my chance to get a sense of this. How did people get an idea into the real world? Clearly a great idea is meaningless alone. To paraphrase a quote I once heard from former Surgeon General David Satcher: ideas must move from the bench to the bedside to the curbside.
With plenty of companies to potentially visit, I focused my trek schedule around entrepreneurs in the healthcare space. I was fortunate to start with Dr. Thomas Fogarty at his winery. As a little background, Dr. Fogarty is a legendary surgeon who invented a simple catheter that completely changed the way cardiac surgery is done, basically putting himself and many of his fellow surgeons out of business. It’s an interesting and courageous proposition to make a big difference at your own expense. After retiring from medicine, he opened the winery (after all, the catheter did work) which is where he welcomed us for a talk about his experiences. To me he’s the perfect example of the end-user innovator. He saw the problem first hand and knew the changes that needed to be made. His great move was then to actually do it.
My next visit was a visit to Rock Health, a healthcare accelerator. Walking around their office, I got my first taste of Bay area startup culture. It was wonderful to see how passionate everyone was about their startups’ ideas. It brought home the importance of finding something that excites me and that will make a big difference in people’s lives. It’s great to have a job; it’s another thing to have a mission.
I saw this realized later that day at HealthTap. That company, founded by Ron Gutman, is attempting to use technology to connect patients with physicians to get them the answers they need when they need it, significantly reducing unnecessary office and hospital visits. I’m the first to admit our healthcare system is broken and inefficient, and this struck me as an innovative way to address it. As for the feel of the group, these people are clearly focused and on a mission. Ron was just as proud to share his team’s credo as he was his technology.
Our next stop was to meet Dr. Amir Belson at Zipline Medical. I was surprised to see how he targets specialties completely outside of his area of medical training. He’s a pediatrician yet he’s working on ventures like improving endoscopy and fixing the trouble with IV catheters. The surprising part about IV’s is that they’ve changed little since their original design, and it’s harder than you think to place a plastic tube into a moving vein. Amir’s clever idea was to move a smooth “guide-wire” into place, allowing for the catheter to slip into position atraumatically. He described the process as hearing about a problem and then thinking through how it “should be done.” That seems so simple, yet his ideas are game-changers. Given that he’s starting several companies, we actually met him at his attorney’s office, so there wasn’t a chance to see him with his employees. No surprise, Amir commanded the room, inspiring our small group with his experiences.
Another unique visit was to see Ephraim Heller at his home in the Valley. He sold his first company in 2004 to Abbott for $1.2 billion and is now back again—after a few other exciting projects—working on creating a pharma company, SynAgile. As successful as he is, I was surprised to find him so open and friendly. I also learned from him that big startups don’t necessarily need lots of employees, as you can outsource many tasks. In his venture he and his cofounder work from home and still do impressive things.
In addition, we met with several VCs starting with Doug Leone at Sequoia Capital. I didn’t really know what to expect from a big VC like Doug, but he had an amazing presence. He also was very honest about his work and industry, advising us not to be too polished, as rough edges reflect more honesty, and to focus on great markets instead of just cool technologies.
As for Sequoia’s office, despite its location on the famous Sand Hill Road, it looks like an unassuming office complex from the outside. However, once you get inside you notice the massive entry area and the complete lack of traditional artwork. Instead, they decorate the place with posters of the companies they started. That was the best artwork I saw on the trip.
Just down the road, we visited another huge player in the VC world, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Although it had a similarly understated exterior, the red Ferrari sitting outside caught my eye. We met with partner Isaac Ciechanover, who is a former physician focused on the area of healthcare IT. He was down to earth and approachable, asking us a lot of questions during our visit. As with my earlier meeting with Amir, it was inspiring to see how physicians can make a difference outside the clinic.
The trip to Silicon Valley introduced me to passionate people turning great ideas into actual practice. I took away several key points. First, a mission-guided team builds a meaningful product. HealthTap was a wonderful example of this. Second, physicians can play a broader role in healthcare, whether it’s creating exciting solutions or helping bring ideas to market. Finally, you never have to do it alone. Great ideas have great teams behind them.
After visiting so many different types of VCs and startups, I realized there is no stereotypical Silicon Valley type and even a geeky physician fits in well. It’s more about excitement and drive here. The trip left me more committed to entrepreneurship than ever before.