SEMDA 2013: A CEO’s journey is roller coaster ride of successes and failures

By OMAR FORD

Medical Device Daily Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Just what does it take to be a CEO of a successful med-tech startup? What does the journey look like for a CEO that has made it through the process of taking an idea and building a product and business around it? Those questions were answered during the CEO Roundtable, one of the more popular sessions at the Southeastern Medical Device Conference (SEMDA; Norcross Georgia) on Wednesday.

Bart Foster, CEO and founder of SoloHealth (Duluth, Georgia) along with Mark Gilreath, president/CEO of EndoChoice (Atlanta) spoke to attendees during the closing moments of the two day conference that was held at the Georgia Institute of Technology Global Learning Center (Atlanta).

Foster, who previously worked at CibaVision (Johns Creek, Georgia), the Eyecare Division of Novartis (Basel, Switzerland), told his story first – saying that the path to building a successful company is often a roller coaster.

The company provides consumers free and convenient access to healthcare by developing and deploying interactive health and wellness kiosks.

“We’re trying to empower people to take care of themselves by putting kiosks into high traffic environments like Wal-Mart and Sams Club,” Foster told the audience. “The whole premise is that we don’t need the government to pay for one’s healthcare. We need to give people the tools to take care of themselves.”

Foster got the idea of developing the device in February of 2004, during a brainstorming session at CibaVision. During that time the company was working on trying to find a way to draw traffic to Wal-Mart’s optic store. Foster pointed out that a kiosk that could give a person an eye exam could probably accomplish this goal, but the idea was quickly shelved.

For nearly two weeks Foster couldn’t sleep and was focused on his idea.

Eventually he had enough support from the company that he was able to start work on the project and eventually get a $1 million budget to further develop the idea. But a costly recall of one of CibaVision’s products almost brought Foster’s plans to a screeching halt.

“It was an $80 million mistake and it had nothing to do with me,” he said.

Foster was taken off the project to help smooth over the firm’s relationship with vendors and his million dollar budget was taken away. The next kick in the shins came when Novartis informed him he could be infringing on someone else’s patent. Foster, not willing to give up, met with the individual and the two worked out an agreement, and in October of 2007 SoloHealth was launched.

“You’re bobbing and weaving, and when a door closes you say hey, I’m going to go to the next door,” Foster told the audience. “As an entrepreneur, what they tell you is that there are ups and downs and there is an emotional roller coaster. What they don’t tell you is that roller coaster happens in the same day. It’s everyday that you can see the highs and lows.

After Foster’s presentation Gilreath took the stage and told the audience that launching a company relies on passion for a dream. He noted that he and his partner Will Parks had been talking about launching a company in the GI space for years.

Gilreath founded EndoChoice in 2008 and the firm is a platform-technology company, that provides devices, diagnostics, infection control and imaging for specialists treating a wide range of gastrointestinal diseases.

EndoChoice currently has more than 2,500 customers and distribution in 34 countries worldwide, and was recently recognized for the third consecutive year as one of the fastest growing companies in the U.S. by Inc. Magazine.

“In 1992 we were independent sales reps in the GI business and so we kind of grew up in the industry,” he told the audience.

Prior to his role at EndoChoice, Gilreath served as a member of the executive committee of Given Imaging (Yokneam, Israel).

He said that it wasn’t until 2007 when attending a trade show in Washington that he saw how much fragmentation there was in the industry and decided to make a go of launching a company.

“I gave Will a call and said you know we’ve been talking about this a long time,” Gilreath said. “I think it’s time we do this.”

He pointed out that 2008 was a terrifying year to begin a company because of the start of the financial crisis in the U.S.

“Those were pretty scary days,” Gilreath said. “Especially when you just left the comfort zone of a company that’s been built up nicely and then in 2008 the world gets turned upside down. One of my favorite stories to tell is that there was this tradeshow that started Sunday in May of 2008 and on Thursday we knew we were going to run out of money. We knew we were dead broke on Monday. The company was closing. We were going to the trade show to have one last hurrah good or bad. But we were funded [by River Cities Capital funds] on Friday.”

He pointed out that he was thankful for the VC’s intervention and urged firms not to be under the misconception that the relationships with these entities needs to be confrontational or negative.

“You can say vulture capital, you can say whatever you will, these things don’t succeed without capital,” he told the audience.

Outgoing SEMDA president Charlie Harrison commented on the incredible journeys that these CEOs had gone through and said that to be a successful CEO, one has to endure the gauntlet of challenges that will be thrown in one’s path.

“I hope what comes out of these presentations is the passion; the leadership; the ability to never say die; the hard work that is actually behind these successes,” Harrison said. “They don’t happen by accident and they don’t happen from a single idea; and they don’t happen from a business plan. They happen from leaders that can face the negative times and the positive times.”

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