As promised here are some additional insights from Steve about how to start a successful entrepreneurial firm from an engineering resources point of view. Unfortunately it also points out how nearly all corporations loose their competitive edge as they grow. At least that is the pattern that appears to be ingrained in this country. I’ll have some more to say about that in a future article. Suffice it to say that the headlines today are full of examples.
“Our first hire came on board with the challenge of taking a concept and making it work and be manufacturable. A very complex concept and mechanism for use within a large blood vessel.
He was hired because–He was very bright-had 10 years experience in product design of non medical parts, and understood really small parts as a result of disk drive experience. The next 5 hires were experienced in medical devices of varied types, mid level, very bright folks. Later hires were both from within and without the device field. Hired based on strengths and at least one solid dose of work experience.
With them as the core, we then brought in interns each summer from Cal Poly. They arrived bright, eager and with some practical teamwork experience. Each was given a project and mentor. Each project was important to the company. At the end of the internship, each student gave a detailed briefing to the design group and then to his school supervisor and class. Some of those youngs kids ended up on patents for which they played a role. More than half of of them were later hired and added to the strength of the group.
As important as the bright kids were, was the management style under which we all worked. The front office folks made sure that we all knew the objective and the timelines we needed to meet. They gave us mid levels mangers that were involved .
They gave us the tools and support equipment we needed and then got out of the way. Periodic huddles of 10 minutes were held to keep the group tuned in to the contributions and problems we all faced.
The company went public quietly but with great success. Five years later they were bought by a major player in the medical business that had no presence in the device field. They tread lightly and gave us more challenges and resources and then got out of the way. More success.
It wasn’t until the first generation managers departed over time that the group weakened a bit. This was due to corporate thinking managers in marketing and finance.
Then that group slowly left and a third and weaker group came aboard. Slowly downhill. That first engineer just retired.”
There are a number of lessons that future entrepreneurs and engineers can gain from this feedback.
1) An experienced and sharp engineer with demonstrated innovative skills led the charge. This isn’t anything particularly startling. It is interesting to note that he did not have a medical device background. This is also a subject for a future article.
2) The next level of supporting engineering staff were also sharp and experienced engineers with knowledge of the medical device field. This may be more telling particularly in this age of cost conscience bottom line management. This was a significant investment for the corporation.
3) The third wave of engineers all had “at least one solid dose of work experience”. Newly graduated biomedical engineers should take note of this point. Biomedical engineering program deans and faculty should also take note of this point.
4) Once the team was working well they began to look for interns to research and develop different aspects of the product. There really is nothing like a young bright individuals constantly popping up with ideas to get experienced engineers thinking. Many of these ideas will “have beards” as they say but sometimes the development processes get stuck in ruts and these ideas can help spark innovation. I will point out here that having these interns a mixed blessing because a good number of these engineers will be thinking that they have better things to do than baby sit a wet behind the …. Well you get the point. Personally I think it is a very good idea at the appropriate point in the development process.
5) Management apparently stayed out of the development process as much as possible and meetings were held to a minimum. As important as management was the overarching business philosophy of viewing the R&D group as a profit center, indeed one the major components to the success of the entrepreneurial endeavor, also needs to be highlighted. This is one of the characteristics that appears to set apart a manufacturing based entrepreneurial firm apart from its more settled corporate peers.
6) Once the first generation of managers left the company things begin to go down hill. This is also appears to be true about all sorts of firms. The follow-on managers typically come in to “punch their tickets” doing things like “reengineering” the department to prove they are doing their jobs, micromanaging, cutting “unnecessary” senior engineers while they keep their eyes on the next higher position ( “corporate thinking” ) within or outside the corporation. This ridiculous state of affairs has been highlighted by Dilbert for years. That is not to say that there aren’t good managers, but by in large most corporations simply don’t know how to identify and nurture them.