What makes a billion dollar medical devices man?

How do you know if you’re cut out to be a medical devices entrepreneur? While thinking about this question I came across the enlightening and fascinating story of Alfred Mann.

Alfred Mann is a serial entrepreneur who has founded a multitude of medical device companies across multiple therapeutic areas.

By studying someone who’s been successful, to a highly significant level, as a medical devices entrepreneur, perhaps we can glean some insights into what it takes?

First a quick summary of Alfred Mann – from the bio page of his foundation (bold highlights are mine):

“Alfred E. Mann has founded and largely funded 17 companies in his career.  Nine were acquired at an overall total of almost $8 billion, and two companies became public.  The companies currently within the family:

  • MannKind Corporation, which develops novel therapeutics and drug delivery technologies for treatment primarily of diabetes, metabolic disease and cancer;
  • Bioness, which develops and manufactures systems to address neural deficits and to restore controlled function of paralyzed limbs;
  • Second Sight, which is developing a visual prosthesis to restore sight to the blind;
  • IncuMed, which is developing novel percutaneous seals for various applications;
  • PerQFlo, which is developing drug delivery systems; and
  • Quallion, which develops, manufactures and markets advanced batteries for medical, aerospace and military applications;
  • Stellar Microelectronics, which produces micro-circuit assemblies, and
  • RoundTrip, which is developing location and identification technology.”

In addition to these, he founded:

  • MiniMed Inc which developed and markets microinfusion systems and continuous glucose monitoring systems for diabetics – founded in 1993 and acquired by Medtronic in 2001.
  • Medical Research Group (MRG) which was developing an artificial pancreas, also acquired by Medtronic in 2001.
  • Advanced Bionics Corporation (AB), which developed neurostimulation devices including cochlear stimulators (insertion of a cochlear implant was one of the coolest operations I ever saw in my time as a doctor – here’s a video of the operation  you can see by Dr Hamid Djalilian on YouTube). Sold to Boston Scientific in 2004.
  • In 2008 acquired the part of AB which develops cochlear implants and then later sold it to Sonova, along with PercuPort, another company developing advanced hearing devices.
  • Pacesetter Systems, Inc., which developed, manufactured and distributed cardiac pacemakers. Acquired in 1985 ny Siemens, AG (and now part of the Cardiac Rhythm management division of St Jude).

…and prior to all the above, he started his entrepreneurial career starting two non-biomedical companies:

  • Spectrolab, an electro-optical and aerospace systems company, and Heliotek, a semiconductor and electro-optical components manufacturer. Both sold to Textron in 1960 and now part of Boeing.


Not infrequently, I meet entrepreneurs who have built and sold one successful company and achieved a commendable exit (commendable as much for an entrepreneur’s exit as for the fact that someone else thinks your company creates a useful product or technology).

Occasionally I meet serial entrepreneurs who have founded a handful of companies – say 2, 3, 4 or even 5, some of which did very well. Quite a remarkable achievement.

But 17 companies?! With nine being acquired for a total of almost $8 billion? And across such a wide range of disciplines? That’s massive. Stupendous. How has Alfred Mann been so successful?

Was it due to Alfred Mann’s prolific education? Well, he was certainly qualified, but not nearly as many letters after his name as many technical folks. He earned “B.A. and M.S. degrees in physics from the University of California, Los Angeles.” Subsequently he’s earned a basket of honorary doctorates based on his real-world achievements. So you can hardly say his education was responsible for him achieving so much success (and by the way, no MBA or business degree).

Was it due to years of corporate experience he gained, learning the ins and outs of building companies before setting out on his own? Well, no, again. He founded his first companies, Spectrolab and Heliotek, in 1956 at age 31. So while he may have had some experience working for others in a corporate environment, hardly anything where others haven’t earned significantly more.

Now, to be a successful entrepreneur you need a whole bunch of attributes – guts, determination, education (academic AND street), knowledge of your marketplace, awareness of need, competitive spirit, hard work, persistence, sacrifice…the list goes on.

But when you break it down, I can think of only two factors that have led him to be as successful and as prolific as he has. Two factors that underpin everything else, without which his success would have been much less. Almost like the Mozart of medical devices. What are the two factors? Are they only available to super-humans, or to gifted people or those born in the right circumstances in life? No. They’re available to anyone. But so few will ever reach them. They are:


Let’s think about these for a minute.

Without an intensely curious mind – i.e. how does the world around you work? – how can you start to think about identifying the core needs that lead to such innovation (both in technology and commercially). While Mann’s physics degrees would have given him a solid foundation, these were just the start.

To operate cross-disciplinary and so effectively, you must have a thirst for (targeted) knowledge. If you don’t know something, you’re hungry and willing enough to go learn, or find someone who can help. Like many great entrepreneurs, so much of their knowledge is self-taught, and through the relentless pursuit to answer the next question…and the next. The value of self-education is highlighted in a recent post: “Grow your competitive advantage through Khan Academy.”

What about compulsion?

A few months ago, I had the privilege of hearing another serial (tech) entrepreneur give a talk at Imperial College in London – Martin Varsavsky. According to Wikipedia, he started his entrepreneurial career at 24, and has built companies in tech (Viatel, Jazztel, Ya.com, FON), biotech (Medicorp Sciences) and real estate development (Urban Capital Corp – an early developer of Manhattan lofts). The tech companies have included some significant wins.

When describing what makes an entrepreneur, he talked first about how it has become a “cool” vocational choice for many, and almost a lifestyle decision. His take was different.

Varsavsky said being an entrepreneur requires an almost pathological mindset. His advice – only go for something if the status quo makes you so angry, so mad, you cannot stand to just leave it so. Stellar advice and a high hurdle for any true entrepreneur.

Being an entrepreneur could be considered a lot like climbing a mountain. From afar it looks beautiful, even stunning and draws you in. Wouldn’t it be cool if…? Your curiosity is awakened. As a young boy visiting India, I recall seeing the Himalayas for the first time, from a farm in Punjab, India. But for me, for that particular path, that’s all it was – curiosity. I was never compelled to climb. And without the compulsion, you’ll stop climbing before you get to the top of your mountain.

I hear a lot of people talk about how entrepreneurs need to be driven by passion. I disagree. You can be passionate about something but still may not be motivated to make a change in the world. And being passionate about something doesn’t mean that it lends itself to a good business, or that the world needs what you have to offer (e.g. train-spotting?). However, your passion can become your compulsion (or vice-versa).

But compulsion is the real driving force.

So, does it choose you, or do you choose it? An eternal question. If you do want to follow the entrepreneurial path, perhaps the best way is to put yourself in the path of problems. Look for ways to solve real needs for the world.

Who knows, maybe your curiosity will lead you to a compulsion. Then just like a bungee jump, buckle up for the ride. Once you’re in, you’re in.

This post was by Raman Minhas.

6 thoughts on “What makes a billion dollar medical devices man?

  1. Am in full agreement that it is first curiosity and then compulsion. Self taught because many entrepreneurs are teaching themselves, and others, to solve problems that do not exist, or at least are perceived to not exist. You can’t change an industry by doing things faster, cheaper, better. That is how you beat competitors. You change industries by doing it differently simply because you can.

  2. Pingback: Boards of directors: What do medtech entrepreneurs need to know? | Medtech Value Investor

  3. Pingback: Did you make a difference? | Medtech Value Investor

  4. Pingback: Innovation: incremental versus game-changing | Medtech Value Investor

  5. Pingback: Entrepreneur war stories – medtech CEO panel | Medtech Value Investor

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s