UW Honors Medical Device Entrepreneur Joe Eichinger For 35 Years Of Service
About 40 prominent researchers, physicians, and businesspeople gathered at the University of Washington’s bioengineering department Wednesday night to honor Joe Eichinger for mentoring students and faculty about how to best apply their inventions in the business world for the past 35 years.
Matt O’Donnell, the dean of the UW College of Engineering, and Paul Yager, the chair of the bioengineering department, presented Eichinger with the first ever volunteer award from the department. It was a short, but heartfelt reception for Eichinger at UW’s Foege Hall. While nobody mentioned it in the public remarks, everybody there knew that the award had extra special significance because Eichinger was diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer in November.
That is an ominous diagnosis, but Eichinger was still there in person and said he was feeling good. He said he was deeply honored by the reception.
“We couldn’t imagine anyone who has given service to the department better than Joe has,” Yager told the crowd. “Joe, you may not be the last person, but you are forever going to be the first person.”
Although he never attended UW as a student, or worked there on the faculty, Eichinger dedicated much of his time over the last three decades working to advance the bioengineering department through his extensive expertise as a leader in the field of medical technology. He’s served on innumerable committees and hiring boards, sits on the Coulter Translational Research Partnership Program oversight committee, and advises researchers on medical startups through the University’s Center for Commercialization, to name just a few.
Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is the entrepreneurial spirit he’s instilled into the bioengineering department, Yager said. Eichinger encouraged researchers to take their best technology born inside the university “and move it out towards the patients.”
Eichinger was nostalgic during his own remarks, and occasionally humorous. (When O’Donnell asked him if ever actually had a job during all those years of volunteering time at UW, Eichinger played along with the joke. “Nope,” he said.)
Seriously, though, Eichinger said he tried to act as the “glue piece” between the medicine and the technology.
“If you have a medical problem, there’s technology over here, an engineer with an idea, a frustrated doctor over here. There’s got to be someone who helps put those things together,” he said.
To Yager, Eichinger’s award represented a noble community of people—researchers, faculty, medical entrepreneurs—all working toward the same goal of developing technology that can treat illnesses and save lives.
“Someone has to take the risk, that is, the entrepreneur—the person who actually puts their life, their time, their riches on the line for actually making these things happen. We can’t operate without these people,” Yager said. “We cannot possibly thank him enough for his role.”
When Eichinger first began working with the University of Washington in the ’70s, he was an employee at Bothell, WA-based ATL Ultrasound, now part of the global operations of Philips Medical. Years later, his wife, Mary, was pregnant with their first son, Joey, and she needed an amniocentesis to assess the health of the developing fetus, Eichinger found himself face to face with the technology he had helped to develop.
“We went to the hospital and there sits an ATL machine. And there on the bed is Mary, and there’s a needle going in. And a little peanut in there, called Joey,” he said. “I kept thinking, God, I hope we designed this right.”
The technology at ATL had its roots in research at the UW, and Eichinger didn’t forget. It reinforced his support over the next several decades to the bioengineering department. And although Eichinger acknowledges that his work over the last 35 years at the University has not been easy—some startups never quite panned out—he confronted those challenges with the same tough, can-do attitude that he does his cancer.
“From my standpoint the UW is just a big powerhouse that is just now starting to come into its own,” Eichinger said. “I really should be thanking [all of] you for having brought so much to me over these past 35 years. I really mean that. I hope the next 35 years will be amazing and I wish the university the best,” he said.
After his remarks wrapped up, I walked up to Joe and asked him how he was feeling and what the award meant to him. Some days are better than others with the chemotherapy, he says. But Wednesday night’s gathering at UW was one of the better days.
“The energy of everyone coming together in this room makes it all uplifting,” he told me.