Boston Scientific Corp. (NYSE:BSX) co-founder John Abele told us
about the origins of the medical device giant in the first
installment of a lengthy chat with MassDevice,
detailing its start in the basement of a famed Czech mystic’s lab
in a Catholic church rectory.
In the second installment, Abele touches on how he and
co-founder Peter Nicholas engineered the Boston Scientific’s
launch, how his involvement with the Natick, Mass.-based company
evolved over the years and how being a “cheap son of a bitch”
helped drive creativity and innovation in the early days.
Abele also gave us his take on the increased demand for
transparency for the medical device industry’s relationships with
physicians and discussed his frustration with some of the company’s
low points in the years since his day-to-day involvement has
MassDevice: How hard was it to walk away from
the day-to-day operations of a company you helped found? How did
you know it was time for you to pursue other endeavors?
MassDevice Q&A: John Abele
JA: That’s kind of interesting, you know. There
aren’t too many people who’ve stayed in the company, much less in a
position of power, for that length of time. But what happened was,
I had some ups and downs with Medi-tech. It was one of those
classic best-of-times/worst-of-times situations. Anybody in a
startup business knows that feeling. But the company that had been
my sponsor and owned the majority of Medi-tech was having some
trouble and was directed by its bankers to get rid of us. A lot of
people came to look, but eventually I bumped into [Boston
Scientific co-founder and chairman Peter Nicholas] and we joined together. Instead of
selling out to another company, we bought out my parent company’s
interest, Cooper Labs. I had gotten to know a lot of people who had
taken the more, even then, traditional route of venture capital. I
said I didn’t want to do that and I would rather work with less.
Once, I borrowed money to buy Medi-tech, so I owned a smaller
portion of it. I never borrowed money during the 10 years I ran
Medi-tech. If you don’t think that that wasn’t extraordinary… I
ran it the way the college dormitory thing runs — your tables
are all doors with bricks for legs and you just be resourceful.
It’s harder to do that today, because that’s not medical practice
or [good manufacturing practice] at least. But it had a positive
sort of philosophical impact, in that people appreciated resources.
You would solve problems in more creative ways and be very, very
resourceful. That was sort of the mindset.
So I was a cheap son of a bitch, actually, and gradually we
grew, and then Peter and I got together and bought out Medi-tech.
Medi-tech was only a couple of million dollars in sales, but
because I had befriended [percutaneous transluminal coronary
angioplasty pioneer Andreas] Gruentzig and gotten pretty well
known, our value was clearly a lot more than the balance sheet and
the P&L would suggest. Our reputational value was growing, and,
in fact, one of the other companies that was also in this space, Cook
Medical from Indiana, they were bigger than I was. [William Cook] even sort of helped me buy
Medi-tech out, in a strange way. I don’t think he knew that. He bid
for the company and part of the due diligence of my being able to
buy was to get a price estimate. So I got a price estimate from a
guy who wanted to buy it cheaply. It worked out very, very
MassDevice: What made you decide that it was
time to take a step back?
JA: It wasn’t so much stepping back. It was
taking different roles. I am not a good manager, but I am probably
pretty good on the vision side of things and I’m pretty good, as a
result of that, in seeing opportunities and getting together with a
lot of different physicians. I was able to earn their respect. In
fact, I started teaching classes on how catheters worked, and
particularly how balloon catheters worked, in the 70s and ended up
a peer-reviewed article (PDF) published on the physics of
dilatation. As it turned out, most medical journals are very poor
in their physics. As I went around talking to people, that became
very apparent to me. I would put them in probably the 7th- or
8th-grade-level physics, so when I wrote the article I just
explained it so they could understand it. But it did have some
observations in it that were new at the time.
That gave our company more publicity and that gave me more
credibility. Once you get into having published articles in
peer-reviewed medical journals, then you’re OK. Because I didn’t
have a medical degree, in fact I didn’t have anything beyond a
bachelor’s degree. [Peer-reviewed publication] allowed me to be
looked at differently by a lot of people who could have killed us.
For example, early on when I started giving courses to explain how
these things would work, I would do that at medical schools. But
some of the medical schools would not allow someone from a company
to present anything at that school. When I broke the barrier in
half a dozen schools — the University of California-San
Francisco was one and Stanford was another — I had to get
permission from the president of the university. Times have changed
and the line between the medical profession and corporations has
changed a great deal. Maybe it’s gone too far in the other
direction. Certainly many people think so, and that’s why the FDA
does what it does. Early on, it was much more of a fraternity of
elite, well-educated people.
MassDevice: What about the increased mandate
for transparency regarding industry’s relationship with physicians?
How do you view the federal Physicians Payment Sunshine Act and
other, local efforts at instituting so-called “gift bans?”
JA: I certainly understand the need for
something, and I also have been frustrated and embarrassed at my
profession, so to speak – the medical device industry – for doing
things that they shouldn’t have done in terms of relationships with
doctors. Some of the doctors that we served actually ended up in
jail because they were doing self-referrals and lots of things that
I think common sense would tell you are just plain wrong. You’ve
got to ask yourself some pretty basic questions, you know, “What if
everybody did this? Would we be better off?” So I think something
It’s not what you do that counts, it’s how you do it. And so
having a rigid, law-prescribed barrier ends up reducing the ability
to be innovative, because you have reduced now the ability to
communicate effectively with the physician. The physician is going
to look at talking to corporation types more cynically as well.
Certainly the corporate type is going to be walking on eggshells in
that sense. So that, number one, is bad because you lose
innovation. The other thing that’s bad is it’s just going to add to
the cost of what’s produced today. In an environment where we need
more innovation on cost reduction, this is just plain wrong. It’s
political correctness that leads us to do things that are not in
our best interest.
MassDevice: What’s your take on the healthcare
reform act? In a 1996 interview you talked about the
importance of addressing systemic costs. Do you think the new
legislation will get at the real, underlying problem of escalating
JA: Uh, no. I think everybody has observed that
it did the access piece but it didn’t do the cost piece. We’re
unfortunately heading off a cliff there. I guess the guidance from
my point of view for anybody in this business is to figure out how
do you do what you do so it is less expensive. Not just less
expensive in the device, less expensive in the delivery of solving
the problem that you’re trying to solve. An awful lot of that is
going to be in information management. I think patients are going
to have to be much more responsible not only for their own health,
but also, if there is something wrong, for their own diagnosis.
They’ve got to be partners. Some physicians do this, but a lot of
them don’t. They treat the patients as spectators and the patients
accept and want to be treated as spectators. That’s not a
I think there’s going to be a lot of opportunity for companies
that come up with innovative ways to do that. Companies like Sermo, which is in, I guess you could call it,
the crowd-sourcing business. In fact, they’ve got about 70,000
physicians who are members of this network. They use it to get help
or to provide knowledge that they’ve gained in a procedure and
share it with others. People can ask questions when they have a
problem and a doctor will answer it, so it’s like having an
enormous panel of people at your beck and call. The Endovascular Forum, another Boston
outfit, does the same thing, but what they’re doing is creating a
forum for people to cross-communicate in ways that their
professional tools don’t provide — the professional meetings,
the professional literature, doesn’t really do it. You want it
faster, you want it more candid, you want it tested, truly against
peers. The peer-reviewed system today does not work,
because the peers in today’s peer-reviewed academic system are
establishment types. That’s how you get to be a peer, you get a
reputation. But the problem is, if you’re an establishment type,
you tend to be much more resistant to change because change
threatens your position in the establishment.
I also think that transparency is great in theory, but in
practice the same information that you make transparent will be
appreciated by some and understood in exactly the opposite way by
somebody else. In order to have effective transparency, you need an
educated reader. And unfortunately, that’s not what we have in our
MassDevice: As you consider the medical device
world today, what opportunities excite you? Where do you think the
new frontiers of innovation lie?
JA: Two classes of answers. I think there are
several technological areas that are going to continue to be
leapfrogs. Imaging is one. All of the different modes of imaging
keep getting better. Over time people are figuring out how to fuse
different modes with each other. That’s going to continue to grow
and it’s going to continue to be easier to use. It’s also going to
continue to get less expensive, so it can be applied in areas where
it couldn’t be today, whether it’s in the ambulance or even the
home. Already we’re seeing an example of that with ultrasound. In
fact there’s an app for the iPhone that allows it to be plugged in
to a nice ultrasound probe. GE is making a phone-size
ultrasound — and by the way, as you know from some of
their advertising, they’re doing this outside of the United States.
They’re doing a lot of this development in Third World countries.
It’s what those companies call reverse engineering.
What they want to do is develop technology that can solve
problems in a Third World economy, in a Third World population with
its understanding, et cetera, et cetera, figuring if they can get
some success there, it will be a lot easier to scale up for the
Western, First World environment. General Electric, Pfizer, the
Mayo Clinic, all are partnering with Grameen Health, part of
Grameen Finance, Muhammad Yunus’ Nobel Prize-winning idea of
microfinance. That to me is really exciting. Even though some
people say, “Well, that’s great for them but it doesn’t apply to
the U.S.,” well, surprise, it’s already here. That will continue to
be something we will see more of.
We won’t make the big changes in Washington, because that system
just isn’t designed to do it and its probably even worse now than
it was — probably because of transparency, by the way. The
way I think we’ll see big changes is smaller, private systems, for
example one of the trends you see now, that started about 20 years
ago and sort of went out of favor and now is back in favor, is
corporate clinics, where corporations actually hire their own
physicians and have an in-house system and then sometimes they make
that available for other corporations. That’s going to be
interesting. What’s fun about that is it allows you to look at the
problem from a different perspective. It’s not a matter of saying,
“How do I get reimbursement for this?” I think the big recognition
is that the accountable healthcare systems ultimately are the ones
that are going to win out. There may be a combination of
accountable healthcare plus some direct reimbursement, but the
Kaiser model, which has been around for a long time, is going to be
the one I think we’re going to see more of.
MassDevice: I have to ask about the turn in the
company’s fortunes since you stepped away from day-to-day
involvement. What has it been like for you as the difficulties
unfolded over the last several years?
JA: I guess I’m a bit of an optimist. It has
not been a smooth ride from the beginning as your remarks suggest.
We were on some very risky ground a number of times where the dice
could have rolled one way or the other, but we made it through and
I guess that’s the way I look at it now.
Being big is a problem. Being big in today’s environment is even
more of a problem. Not just corporations, but you think of BP in
the Gulf and say, “Wow, here is something that is potentially going
to take down one of the largest corporations in the world.” What
has happened that can happen? It’s not the type of environment that
used to exist. I think in many ways it’s very good that large
organizations are being held more accountable, but I think there’s
got to be sort of a reality somewhere in there. In the case of
Boston Scientific, we go back and make sure what are our strengths,
what are the real skill sets that we have — and we have a lot
— and we focus on those and go for it.
Yeah, certainly frustrating and certainly, discovering things in
a larger organization particularly where there may have been an
acquisition, where things weren’t what you
thought, but in a way that’s a great opportunity. If you see a
problem and you fix it, you’re going to be better off than you were
before. You not only fix the problem, but you learn about the
nature of those types of problems.
We’re in an environment today where nobody is safe. We have a
high-expectation environment from the public, in terms of what they
want, but it may have stepped beyond what it’s capable of doing.
Whether it’s the airlines, whether it’s the housing industry,
whether certainly now the oil industry, the financial world,
nobody’s been unscathed. The emperor has no robes, so to speak. So
you have to get back to basics and you have to get back to
To me, what keeps a company going is values, why you do what you
do and how you make that visible. It’s not just value for the
customer, it’s value in more of an ecological sense. By that I mean
there’s a circle of understanding. You can call it triple bottom line, as some people do in the
business world, but it’s recognizing that everything has
trade-offs. If you are innovating solutions to problems, you’ve got
to be aware that in every solution you’re going to create some
related problems. They may be smaller, but they’re real to the
people who have them. So understanding risk, understanding
probability, understanding how value is created for the larger
audience, so that when you come up with an innovation everybody
wins, not just one group at the expense of another.