The late Earl Bakken led Medtronic for 40 years. His greatest gift to the company was arguably its mission.
Earl Bakken made history when he invented the battery-powered, wearable cardiac pacemaker in a Minneapolis garage in 1957. But three years later, the company he co-founded was floundering and desperately needed cash.
To show the board of directors that the $200,000 they had raised would be put to good use, Bakken wrote a mission statement for the company. Nearly 60 years later, that mission statement continues to guide Medtronic and inspire its 86,000 employees. Each receives a medallion that encapsulates the mission statement’s six tenets thus: “Contributing to human welfare by the application of biomedical engineering to alleviate pain, restore health and extend life.”
Bakken died at his Hawaii home on October 21, 2018, at the age of 94. He spent 40 years at the helm of Medtronic, the world’s largest medtech company, which generated $29.7 billion in revenue in 2017 and had operations in 140 countries around the world. CEOs who succeeded him and other executives extolled Bakken for his leadership and vision, and for his drive to invent and teach, during an event in December in Minneapolis.
The roots of Bakken’s leadership were spiritual, according to Mary Jo Kreitzer, a registered nurse and founder and director of the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota.
When Bakken was a shy youngster studying for confirmation – and simultaneously inventing an electronic device to zap bullies – his pastor suggested applying his scientific and electrical interests to helping people, Kreitzer said. When he was a young man leading Medtronic, another pastor challenged Bakken to mount a moral defense for implanting electronic devices in the human body.
“He replied, ‘God has given us the ability to develop such devices for the good of humankind and to help restore patients’ lives. Surely that’s a worthy activity in the eyes of God,’” recalled former Medtronic chairman and CEO Bill George.
Bakken and his brother-in-law, Palmer Hermundslie, had started Medtronic in 1949 to repair electronic medical equipment. Dr. C. Walton Lillehei – who pioneered open-heart surgery at the University of Minnesota’s hospital – asked Bakken to build a battery-powered pacemaker after a baby who was connected to an AC-powered pacemaker died during a 1957 power failure.
A 1948 electrical engineering graduate, Bakken maintained a strong relationship with the University of Minnesota. He worked closely with scientists, engineers and healthcare providers at the university and supported it throughout his life. In 2007, the university gave Bakken an honorary medical degree. Ten years later, the university renamed its Center for Spirituality and Healing and its Medical Devices Center after him.
Considered the founder of the medical device industry, Bakken went on to receive a lifetime achievement award in 2014 from the medtech trade group AdvaMed. At the ceremony, Bakken described visiting the hospital and seeing his pacemaker attached to wires in a young boy’s chest.
“It was a marvelous feeling to see something we had made keeping this child alive,” Bakken said. “I learned then that this was a wonderful business to be in and supply these miracles for people’s lives.”
Bakken was an unconventional CEO. He instituted an annual holiday party at which patients tell employees how Medtronic devices changed their lives and encouraged patients to use their “extended lives” to help others. He was also a champion of promoting women to leadership positions and exhorted others to do the same. George and former Medtronic chairman and CEO Art Collins described their job interviews as sessions in which Bakken spoke about the Medtronic mission for nearly an hour and asked no questions of them. Former chairman and CEO William Hawkins described Bakken as a social leader who exhibited extraordinary empathy, humility, and confidence.
“Earl taught us a lot about confident leadership (with) his passion for innovation, his relentless focus on the patient and his belief that everyone makes a difference,” Hawkins said. “He led by example. Earl lived his whole life dedicated to improving the human condition.”
Bakken also loved science and never stopped teaching. In 1975, he established the Bakken Museum in Minneapolis to share his passion for innovation through science, technology, and the humanities. The Smithsonian-affiliated museum maintains a collection of historic, scientific and medical instruments as well as books, journals, and manuscripts. Thousands of schoolchildren visit the Bakken Museum each year.
Bakken inspired many medtech leaders to take risks and to build their companies to help address unmet medical needs, according to Hawkins. After he moved to Hawaii, Bakken had a community hospital built there, making sure that it provided patients with plenty of natural light and views of the lush scenery to promote their healing.
Bakken retired as chairman and CEO of Medtronic in 1989. He had a unique capability that few company founders display, according to another former chairman and CEO, Art Collins.
“He recognized what he was good at and when it was time to step aside and let others run the day-to-day operations of Medtronic,” Collins said. “He remained a quiet leader who never really left the company. Whether as a board member or simply in his founder role, Earl’s presence was always felt and appreciated by employees, physicians and the patients we all served.”
“He was a good guy,” added Hawkins. “He cared about patients. He cared for the physicians. He cared for the employees and he cared for their families.”
Earl Bakken didn’t think he was doing anything out of the ordinary when he built the first battery-powered wearable pacemaker or when he composed the mission statement, according to current Medtronic CEO Omar Ishrak. Ishrak called that statement Bakken’s greatest gift to the company.
“When I wrote that mission, I never realized what an impact it would have on the future of our company,” Bakken once said to employees. “I ask you to keep those words in your mind and take them into your heart. I want you to live by it every day.”