Earl Bakken was eight years old when he saw the movie Frankenstein and became fascinated with the connection between electricity and life. He went on to invent the wearable external pacemaker and co-founded Medtronic in 1949. In 1967, he hired Manny Villafaña to head the company’s international sales division.
In 1972, Villafaña started a competing pacemaker firm, CPI. Medtronic sued, and a year later, CPI was barely hanging on. Villafaña called his former boss and invited Bakken to meet for a drink in Minneapolis. They talked, and without any further legal advice, Bakken agreed to drop the suit.
CPI later became Guidant, which Boston Scientific acquired in 2006, with the exception of Guidant’s vascular intervention business, acquired by Abbott. Villafaña went on to be a serial medtech entrepreneur. Bakken stuck with Medtronic, retiring in 1989 after 40 years. Bakken died Oct. 21 at age 94 at his home in Hawaii. His former employee and competitor remembers Bakken as a gentleman and a tough teacher.
“He always wanted to teach, teach, teach, teach and we wanted to go home to our families,” Villafaña said. “He had us stay until 8 or 9 o’clock at night to teach us about pacemakers.”
In 1975, Bakken founded The Bakken Museum, a nonprofit library, museum and education center in Minneapolis. The museum is devoted to the history of electricity and magnetism and their uses in science and medicine, and thousands of schoolchildren and others have passed through its doors.
In 1984, Bakken co-founded Medical Alley, a trade group that promotes Minnesota’s medtech industry and healthcare expertise. Early members included Medtronic, 3M, Mayo Clinic and St. Jude Medical, as well as health insurers, Preferred One and HealthPartners.
In 2005, the organization changed its name to LifeScience Alley and expanded its role to include biotech and biological science companies focused on agriculture and next-generation fuels. Current CEO Shaye Mandle guided the organization back to its medtech roots, and the name was changed back to Medical Alley in 2016.
A few months before the organization’s board agreed upon the name reversal, Bakken was given a lifetime achievement award at the AdvaMed conference in Chicago. In his acceptance speech, Bakken said that co-founding Medical Alley was one of his proudest achievements, Mandle recalled. Bakken also let on that he didn’t like the name LifeScience Alley.
“He was always a great supporter of the organization,” Mandle said. “He was still one of the brightest and most inspiring people that I ever met. Having a 20-minute conversation with Earl or even a short interaction with him was astounding. Even to the end of his life, he knew all the answers. And he still had ideas of how to to make things better. He was always engaged in thinking about the future.”