As a doctor specializing in diseases and disorders of blood cells, I devoted my life to discovering new ways to diagnose and treat disease. I never saw myself as an entrepreneur. But some doodles I’d drawn on a piece of paper that I later jerry-built into a prototype in my garage turned into an automated device for diagnosing cancer that showed potential. It allows pathologists to accurately identify the cellular characteristics of a cancer, making it possible to personalize treatment to a patient’s molecular profile and targeting drug treatment so it reaches every cancerous cell.
My invention attracted startup money and grew into a successful business, Ventana Medical Systems. After seven years, we took the company public. It was later acquired by a leading international pharmaceutical firm that continues to invest in the company.
Between the garage and the post-acquisition period, here are some of the lessons I learned from my successes and missteps during this improbable journey about leveraging capitalism for the greater good.
First do no harm, but also miss no cure
In the course of my medical practice, I honored the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm.” When I turned my focus to patients with cancer, I extended the pledge to include “miss no cure.” To me, this meant leaving no stone unturned in the effort to understand and cure what ailed each of my patients.
I believe these same principles should guide entrepreneurs. Efforts to raise capital and to build and run a business should be pursued in ways that injure no one, and that also serve the best interests of the full range of stakeholders.
To build a market, build trust and reliability
I discovered that turning an idea into a product is just the first step on the entrepreneurial journey. You also need to develop a market for your product and dependably supply your customers with the product they need and the support to use it. This can be every bit as difficult as creating the invention in the first place.
For Ventana, that meant being a reliable partner to the big hospitals and clinics that needed to crank out diagnostic results 24/7; any downtime could mean a crisis for thousands of patients. We had to devote enormous effort to educating and training users, as well as providing the technical support necessary to keep them continuously up and running.
Going public is the pathway to greater impact
It takes tens of millions of dollars to create a nationwide market and build the support and distribution system needed to serve it. For us, the money came from an initial public offering on NASDAQ in 1996 in which we sold three million shares at $10 each.
But the IPO was never a sure thing and took time to attract the right investors. Ventana wasn’t the choice for those looking to get rich quickly. We offered investors an opportunity to produce a transformation in medical care.
Investing in the company would help create a more precise, accurate, personalized diagnostic result and more targeted therapy for cancer patients. Our plan was to use investors’ money to keep inventing and building until we improved the practice of medicine. Money was not our endpoint, as is the case for much of capitalism; it was our enabler.
Turning a profit required patience. It took us a full 12 years, with the IPO happening a little past the halfway point. For investors to be willing to sustain us through the tough early stages, they needed to share our conviction that steady investment was the key to ultimate success. Before they could get the reward of profit, they first needed to be satisfied with non-monetary returns. We kept them informed and connected to our success through regular reports from our growing number of customer sites. These updates from hospitals and labs clearly validated that the technological advance our product delivered was helping each care and diagnostic facility improve treatment.
The breakthrough to profit came slowly but surely with the revelation that hospital labs, doctors, and their patients all benefited from the delivery of more accurate and timely diagnostic results. As revenues grew, investors realized increased stock values.
As our product proved its worth in improving medicine, interest in it grew. Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, acquired Ventana in 2008 for $3.4 billion, further boosting the monetary reward for the investors.
In this journey from a home-brewed invention to the millions invested by venture capitalists to the tens of millions by Wall Street and the billions invested by Roche, I experienced the true virtue of principled, long-term capitalism, whereby private funds were initially employed to create a social good and secondarily created billions in value.
Go global to benefit everyone, everywhere
Globalization may be under attack, but I learned that it has important benefits — not only for the bottom line, but for people — when Ventana was acquired and became part of a global enterprise.
Roche, our parent company, has a major diagnostics division that complements its pharmaceutical business. When a company markets both a targeted drug and a diagnostic tool that identifies patients responsive to that treatment, the commercial potential can be attractive. But even though Roche had no drug for cervical cancer, it invested nearly a half billion dollars in a German diagnostics company that had the potential to produce a major advance in testing for that disease. This included a test on our instrument for the early detection and prevention of cervical cancer, which kills 311,000 women a year, mostly in poor countries.
Why would a pharma company invest so much to gain a cervical cancer test with no related drug and zero potential for short-term gain? Roche believed the new test could help eradicate cervical cancer over the long term, by making the causes and markers of that particular cancer more transparent and codified. So even if it might take 25 years to recoup its investment, Roche would be helping to save over 300,000 lives a year, or 8 million over 25 years.
The company understood that changing medicine globally requires a willingness to invest heavily beyond immediate gain. It felt a social responsibility.
Capitalism at its best benefits everyone
My experience as an accidental entrepreneur taught me that smart investing goes beyond immediate gain and serves the greater good. My colleagues and I practiced this brand of win-win patient-centered capitalism, which worked like this:
- Inventors were given the time and capital to invent.
- Employees were given the means to build, sell, support, and refine the product.
- The product gave doctors new tools and capabilities to improve how they diagnosed and treated cancer.
- It gave patients more certain diagnoses and more informed treatments.
- The product’s capabilities, which were valuable to doctors and their patients, gave increased economic value to investors, both venture capitalists and shareholders. This was realized by increasing revenue and stock prices, and ultimately by a high monetary return upon acquisition.
- The health care system was given a more accurate, efficient, and fast-acting tool to deliver personalized health care.
- And the gains were harvested to fuel further transformative projects.
As our country ponders ways to make capitalism work better for everyone, I hope my experience can provide a blueprint for others.
My colleagues and I did not set out to achieve a profit and coincidentally bring about a social good. On the contrary, we sought a to produce a social good that created universal value, which in turn generated monetary gain. We learned that capitalism can produce a social good and be quite profitable, too.
Thomas Grogan, M.D., is professor emeritus at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and founder and chief medical officer emeritus of Ventana Medical Systems Inc., which is now part of Roche Tissue Diagnostics. Portions of this article are excerpted from his memoir, “Chasing the Invisible: A Doctor’s Quest to Abolish the Last Unseen Cancer Cell” (Koehler Books, December 2019).