Naji Gehchan: Hello, leaders of the world. Welcome to spread love in organizations, the podcast for purpose-driven healthcare leaders, striving to make life better around the world by leading their teams with genuine care, servant leadership, and love.
I am Naji, your host for this podcast joined today by Paul Hartung, a longtime life sciences and technology executive with a proven track record in launching successful startup businesses and leading Fortune 500 organizations. Paul currently serves on several Board of Directors including Leuko and Verisense, he mentors at MIT VMS, MassBio MassCONNECT, and The Capital Network, and serves as a judge for MassChallenge. He served as President & CEO through successful Phase II of Cognoptix, which has developed an innovative eye scan for early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. Paul also founded Sonivance, and has held senior management roles at 3Com, Summit (LASIK), Trumpf, Laser Fare and GE.  Paul graduated with honors from MIT with an MS Degree in Mechanical Engineering. He is an active speaker, author and inventor on a number of patents.

Paul – it is an honor to have you with me today!

Paul Hartung: Well, thank you very much, Naji. I really appreciate the invitation.

Naji Gehchan: Can you first share with us, uh, Paul, your personal story from mechanical engineering to life sciences and impressive entrepreneurial track record?

What’s, what’s behind this inspiring journey you have? Yeah.

Paul Hartung: You know, I, I guess I like to categorize myself as an engineer who loves to make things right. So early on, uh, my research at m i t was at, uh, lab for Manufacturing and Product. . So I got involved in all kinds of manufacturing processes and advanced materials.

And actually some of my work is being taught today at M I T and my research. Um, so I started in the aerospace industry, which is a manufacturing industry. And then I looked around and I, I realized that, um, you know, manufacturing was really changing and I wanted to do something. So one of the things that caught my interest was lasers, and there’s lots of different things you can do with lasers and, and photonics.

I I started looking at, um, industrial lasers, high power lasers, and got a whole taste of, um, the whole process of, uh, mergers and acquisitions of companies. . I, and I had a crash course, uh, in that I, I went from GE to a, a small company. . Um, then another small company that was acquired by a bigger company and merged with another company all in a period of years.

And that’s what ended up being described on my resume as as Trump. But it started as a spin out of combustion engineering, which is an energy company. Um, , but then I, I got exposed to, uh, medical technology first using lasers as a manufacturing tool cuz you know, they’re used to make pacemakers and things like that.

Um, there’s things you can do with lasers that you can’t do with other manufacturing processes. So, um, I went to, I, I spoke at an M D D I conference, which is on medical devices, uh, using lasers and manufacturing tool and. Lo and behold, uh, after a little bit of a journey, you know, through these mergers and acquisitions, I ended up getting a call from a friend of mine who was working for a medical laser company and a startup that was called Summit Technologies.

And, uh, that was a company that developed lasik. So, um, I, you know, made this huge pivot in my. To, to do that. Um, and at the same time as, as developing skills sort of across business, rather than doing an m mba, again, I haven’t, you know, a couple of engineering degrees. Um, I decided to learn different aspects of the business.

So I actually applied to a manufacturing job and this, this startup was sort of expanding. They, uh, wanted to do manufacturing in, uh, in, uh, Ireland. and take advantage of some, some tax breaks and what have you. So, um, I came in to kind of run manufacturing locally and we didn’t have f d a approval yet, so had to go through the whole process of, of, um, getting f d a approval and learned that firsthand and.

You know, I, uh, then got distracted. Uh, I, I ended up doing that for several years and I got a call, um, you know, sort of the whole internet of things industry was starting to blossom. And I got a call from a company called Threecom Corporation, which I hadn’t even heard of at the time, but at, at that time, its bread and butter was connecting everybody to the internet.

I mean, there were basically devices that you plugged in to every laptop to connect to the internet, but the company grew, grew through acquisitions. So every month the company was acquiring another company. So now what our smartphones kind of evolved from something that was called the Palm Pilot. I dunno if anybody remembers that, but, um, these, these, uh, PDA.

We’re, uh, kind of a precursor to smartphones and, uh, Threecom bought the company that makes those. Um, I, I learned, oh, I’m a mechanical engineer by training. I learned all about, uh, kind of software intensive businesses and uh, uh, electrical hardware done at very low cost. And, um, I learned partnering as well, uh, the global supply chain because we had three internal factories.

um, like four subcontractors that we worked with on the outside. And I ended up with this global operations role, figuring out how to make new product, how to design new products anywhere and make them anywhere. So in concept, um, And then I got back into, um, startups. Uh, I, I joined a company called Win Foria that was acquired by Motorola and developed, uh, another mobile technology called Push to Talk.

Um, so after that little diversion into Into Tech, okay, I decided I was gonna do a medical device. And I, um, ended up being in the right place at the right time. I, um, started researching how to kind of raise funny first for startups and went to a little conference put on by a law firm. And, uh, I enjoyed one of the speakers, spoke to him in the hallway and he said, oh, you need to meet.

Scientists who are putting together this, that made this great discovery of amyloid in the eye that, uh, kind of parallels what goes on in the brain with Alzheimer’s disease and, um, you know, your photonics background, you know, working with the eye with lasik. Um, my business background, I ended up at my kind of first, uh, founding c e O job.

and, uh, that was initially named Neurotics, uh, changed its name to Cog Optics at one point due to a trademark thing with another company. But, um, we, it was quite a journey. Um, you know, I, coming from a very successful tech startup that had raised a lot of money from venture capital, , uh, I thought I could, you know, raise money quickly through vent venture capital instead.

Um, I found myself being introduced to Angel financing and cuz it was Alzheimer’s disease was too scary. It, the market at that time was, was very tough. So, by accident I syndicated the first, uh, angel deal in the Northeast because I couldn’t make enough money through, you know, Uh, angel Group. I put four together and, you know, did of financing.

So, you know, I ultimately raised 3 million in angel financing and, um, did the development that was needed to sort of get ready for, uh, venture financing. And, um, what happened? The economy crashed. This was back in 2008. and luckily I was, I was kind of searching internationally for, uh, venture venture funding.

I had a lead investor in, uh, Europe. Uh, and we closed a, a financing in September when the whole US economy had shut down that year already no one was getting financing. So, um, that, uh, helped hurdle me forward and. . Yeah. You know, that that was a wonderful journey for me, uh, that that company, um, you know, we were one of the four leading inventions by, you know, the Alzheimer’s Association.

I do an international conference in, in, uh, 2015. And, uh, really positioned for success. Uh, a real issue was no company had a treatment. And that ended up being a real kinda barrier to, uh, you know,

Naji Gehchan: Well, well, thank you so much for sharing. This is really inspiring and incredible journey, and you shared so many times the word learning, uh, and it seems every, everything job you took was based out of curiosity learning.

So I’d love to double click on this a as you were taking those job, and obviously it’s, it’s risky, right? Like you’re jumping, I imagine what you felt. Also kind of constantly move to jobs, uh, you know, new jobs that I don’t know about. Right. What, what was your backbone, is there like a backbone capability or something within your core or leadership signature that you always kind of relied on or something else that made you, you know, go learn fast

Paul Hartung: and?

Well, something that’s great about m i t is, uh, they teach you problem solving skills. So that’s one thing at the core, you know, uh, kind of being able to kind of step back, be humble, learn as much as you can about a situation before jumping to conclusions and, and, and jumping to the solution space. So, um, again, problem solving is a process.

And I also look at, um, product development, uh, as a process that, uh, translates across industries actually. Um, you know, a lot of people and, you know, a lot of people are very successful kind of choosing, uh, sort of an industry segment and, and role even sometimes, so you know that they’re very effective.

and going very deep. Well, I’ve found that, um, you know, I, I talked about, um, working for a company like ge. Well, guess what? They, they did some military business. It was, uh, it was, um, uh, military helicopter engines was one of the things that they made, you know, where, where we were, which is a regulated industry.

Right? Um, and there were some. Grants associated with the kind of work I was doing, you know, writing and, and supporting grants is kind of a general skill. Um, I, I found that, um, the process of, of, uh, team building. Um, one thing I’m, I’m passionate about is, is developing cross-functional teams and starting having an interest in manufacturing.

there’s this traditional wall between engineering and manufacturing where they used to say that, uh, you know, ideas would be kind of thrown over the wall and manufacturing people would have to figure out how to make it. Well. Over time, we’ve all learned that it’s most effective to, um, bring pe, bring all the stakeholders in early, you know, in, in the process, and, uh, create these cross-functional teams that are very effecti.

So, um, I’ve done that on the level of job functions and more recently done it on the level of complex things like drug delivery, where, you know, you need to have people who understand the pharma side and you also have people who understand the sort of mechanics of, of, of, of drug delivery or, or understand advanced materials.

and, um, you know, it, it, it’s interesting getting a diverse team together in, in the same room and trying to figure out how to move forward to a common cause. Love, and that’s, I love they developed over time. And I, I

Naji Gehchan: wanna go there because I love what you said about the wall, you know, between engineering and or tech and then manufacturing.

And I’m sure you’ve seen another wall once. This is, you know, produced like a wall for marketing and sales to figure out how to sell it, right?

Paul Hartung: Yeah, absolutely.

Naji Gehchan: So as you are building and working those with diverse teams, uh, as the leader of all those teams, what, what, what do you practically do? You said like, put people together in a room.

Uh, in today’s world, it’s. Possible physically. Sometimes our teams are remote, I’m sure. And,

Paul Hartung: and you were the same. So I can be done remotely.

Naji Gehchan: Yeah. So I’d love to learn more from you, like what are the tips, how have you done it to build really this cross-functional team that is going towards a purpose, as you said, a common purpose, uh, to deliver on the mission they had.

So how, how have you, how have you done this?

Paul Hartung: Well, I think, um, part of it is effective meeting management. Um, everybody. Gets quickly sick of too many meetings. But if you have, uh, a structure where there’s a periodic team meeting, say weekly, and um, you know, you have to have a manageable number of people.

And that partly has to do with, with, uh, how big the project is and the structure of the team. But if you have, you know, 10 people in the room, let’s. , you give everybody the opportunity to give a quick update from their perspective. And um, also they may have an ask. And, um, at first when you know people are, um, hearing something that’s very foreign to them, they think it, maybe it’s a waste of time or they don’t understand it or whatever, but it starts to sink in.

They start to get an appreci. of all of the pieces of the puzzle. You don’t have to become an expert in everything. But knowing a little bit about, and, and understanding what impacts your fellow team members, um, it’s those intersections, you know, that are, are, that are most important and someone from a completely different discipline may have a great idea or, or great solution for, for one of their team.

So that’s, that’s part of it. I think another part of it is just having really good project management. You know, I’m, I’m a believer in, uh, project plans and, and Gant charts and those sorts of things. And, you know, trying to work to a schedule and if there are delays, figuring out what, you know, what things can be done independently, what what can be done to mitigate, um, um, issues with the.

Um, but yeah, I mean, usually with a complex project, um, the, the solutions may come from anywhere. You know, they, there’s different facets to the project and to work around a delay in one area, um, someone may need to step up in another area.

Naji Gehchan: It’s reminding me of what we also at m i t learned, right? Like all this dynamic work design and, and how to do this.

Have you seen a difference between doing it in startups? So you’ve done like all. all scales of companies, right? Like upside up to, to large corporations. Yeah. Is there any difference, uh, doing it through those? And I, I’d love to hear the cultural perspective as you’re managing those teams and building those effective high

Paul Hartung: performing teams.

Sure, sure. Well, you know, I’ve, I’ve seen, um, speed come from. Almost like, you know, volume. You know, I have a, have, have a big team. Uh, one example was Win Foria. We, we were actually a, a startup, but a very well funded, you know, VC back startup. We had 120 software engineers in three countries. And, you know, having Boston effectively, Madrid and Bangalore, India, we could have software development 24 by.

and, you know, because people are in different time zones and the challenge was kind of knitting together all this work, but, um, you know, in, in contrast and, and that that’s more difficult than it may seem. Right. You know, knitting together work of software engineers, but they’re tools. , right? They’re, um, these, uh, configuration management systems that, uh, knit the software together.

And, um, you can, you know, you set up the proper processes and, um, you can be effective and have good leadership. You know, that’s communicating a across the teams. But, um, I would say that, uh, startups these days and, and. Tics, the example I gave you before the Alzheimer’s thing, that was a complex project cuz we were doing, um, we weren’t doing a treatment, we were doing, uh, a diagnostic, but it did involve a reagent with, which was formulated into an ophthalmic ointment.

So it’s like a, like a drug development project. Not for treatment, for diagnosis in parallel with a complex optical system. You know, the system had, um, six ax axis of motion and um, you know, did a, a, um, measurement in milliseconds and, you know, it was, uh, a fluorescent spectroscopy measurement. It was, you know, quite sophisticated.

We had, um, five people in the. I mean, you know, our, our team was tiny. And how did we do it? We did it through, uh, partnering and we chose really good partners and, and, and the top-notch team. But a lot of it was, um, in a way, you know, project management, it was realizing that we weren’t gonna be the manufacturer, so we had to have a manufacturer that had all the certifications.

Proven track record of doing this kind of complex product on the device side, and we had to separate, right then we had to find, um, someone to make the a p i. We ended up, um, uh, moving that manufacturing to India for cost. , we ended up, um, having a complex formulation. We had searched the world, you know, found a partner in the United States that was one of the only ones that could handle the formulation of our product.

We even, uh, created patents for some of the formulation steps because it was so complicated. And I won’t get into the details, but, you know, um, but we wouldn’t have been able to do it ourselves. We wouldn’t have been able to create our own bricks and mortar and, and, uh, do that. on the development side, it’s, it’s trickier, you know, um, there’s a range of possibilities you can hire, in some cases, one company to do your development for you to do your design work for you, right?

Um, I haven’t been so successful at that. You know, what I’ve done is, uh, tended to. , um, kind of break things into pieces and use a company that’s really good on software development. Use a company that’s really good on, um, you know, say mechanical design. Um, maybe another company that’s really good at, uh, electrical design.

And then, uh, kind of have them work together as, as a team, you know, and, and, and bring everybody.

So Paul, you are heavily

Naji Gehchan: involved in, um, helping ventures, helping startups, founders through the different Yeah. The different work you do. Uh, what, what is the number one device, uh, advice that you would give for founders of startups

Paul Hartung: and healthcare?

Um, number one, I would say,

one, make sure that you’re addressing an unmet need and that people at the end of the day will really care, you know, identify who, who will care, care enough to pay, care enough to utilize care enough. So that exploratory process. Um, and it, it, it, you know, took me some time to learn this. Um, But I’m seeing it more and more.

It’s been formalized in programs like icor, which you may have heard of that. Um, you know, to get an S B I R grant, you have a 40% better chance if you go through this ICOR program. And the principle is you have a great idea. Reach out to about a hundred stakeholders, potential stakeholders, and explore the idea and make sure you’re addressing so.

that’s really a pain point out there because, um, sometimes current treatments or, um, cur current methods aren’t optimal, but they’re kind of like good enough that, uh, having something that’s a little bit better doesn’t move. The bar doesn’t, you know, for one, it’s hard to raise money, but at the end of the day, you can go through all the work and.

you know, it, it’s, it’s, uh, it’s quite a journey. You know, you put blood, sweat, and tears into a, into a program and after several years find out, you know, you’re basically done, but there’s no real market for what you’re doing, or you can’t find a commercialization partner because there just isn’t a strategic fit.

So I’m a believer in working on those issues very. , you also have to make sure that, um, your science is really solid. So I think there are some spinouts that are premature that, um, really need to, um, make sure their, their, their science is very solid. That, um, uh, the way I look at it, data is your currency, right?

You, you, you can tell people that it’s gonna work, but really have to show them data that’s, um, that it’s gonna work because you have to have something that works, that, again, people will care about right’s. Those two pieces,

and too often that, that, that second one of, you know, well, people really care about it. It’s not an easy thing to get to. You care exactly. The, the entrepreneur, the founder, you know, feels passionately about it and maybe thinks everybody else is stupid because they don’t get it. They don’t. , but it’s really important to sort out.

Yeah. And, and you mentioned care

Naji Gehchan: about and willing to pay, like there’s this value, right? At the end of the day, value creation and capture that you need to figure out.

Paul Hartung: Right.

Naji Gehchan: Uh, Paul, I’ll give you now a word and I’d love your reaction to it.

Paul Hartung: So the first one is leadership.

Uh, leadership. Okay. It’s, it’s, um, to me it’s, it’s, it’s keeping a team motivated through the tough times. It’s always easy to, um, stand up and, um, give praise for alls all the successes. But the real challenge, particularly in, in, uh, in a startup. and even, you know, in companies, uh, that are working on, on, on programs that are difficult programs, it’s the hard times in figuring out the Plan Bs and, and, um, I’ve even been in situation where, um, my whole team went off salary for several months because we were kind of between financings and that takes more than just kind of the, the traditional.

Carrots that you hand out in, in, in business, it takes developing a, a passion as a team for what you’re

Naji Gehchan: doing. Can I double click on that and if you can tell us the story and how you develop this passion to make sure that people keep on coming.

Paul Hartung: Yeah. Well, um, I can expand on that particular story. Um, and that that was, um, it was a, a point in, in, uh, Cognos life actually.

I, I, I had mentioned that, um, we were trying to raise money, uh, when the economy collapsed. Well, just before the economy collapsed, I actually had a syndicate of investors ready to invest. And, you know, your board becomes part of. Expanded team of a company. Well, um, the particular group of investors sort of became, in my mind, toxic.

They weren’t working well together and one of the investors was sort of becoming very manipulative. And, um, we thought that we were ready to close a financing. And then at the last minute terms were. . So finally I had to make the tough decision based on the fact that, uh, I would need to live with these people.

You know, they’re not only, you know, giving us money, but you know, the, the next few years of the company, we’d be tied to these people. I, I realized that it wa it just wasn’t gonna work, and, uh, took a big, took a big gamble and tested loyalty of my earliest investors. They came back and did a, a small bridge to keep us going while I pivoted to find a different set of investors.

That’s when I went to international, you know, and, and, and found, uh, um, you know, an inter international lead investor. But, um, the team, uh, had a choice. You know, we, we either continue working. Effectively, we, you know, had to kind of mothball the company. Everyone wanted to keep going. Um, I had actually one, one person leave, but it was actually right before I closed the next financing.

And you know what? Everybody was made whole. Uh, you know, we ended up for that time that people took off. They, they all get. For that time in the end, once, once we, once we closed the financing. Um, so it was scary, but we just kind of put our heads down and, and, um, carried out our mission.

Naji Gehchan: Oh, and I’m sure it talks to the culture you created for people to keep on Yeah. Showing up and, and being here. Yeah. Yeah.

Paul Hartung: The second word is innovation. innovation. Yeah. One of those words that, uh, I love, but, you know, may, may be overused, uh, . Um, you know, I, I guess, um,

there are lots and lots of good ideas that merge every day. Right. Um, and unfortunately a lot of innovations never. Polite of day, you know, people may file a patent. I know that, uh, all of the major institutions have piles of patents that they, they can’t even license out. They, you know, they don’t know what to do with.

So, um, you know, it’s, it’s an issue of, of, um, finding ideas. that actually can make a difference, that can have an impact. Um, and that gets back to some of the things we were saying before, of, of really exploring the landscape, understanding, um, if it’s in a treatment space, understanding the kind of landscape of treatments that are available today.

Really understanding, you know, the, the unmet need, um, before putting a lot of. Effort into your particular in innovation? Um, again, building off something I said before, um, I think some of the more important innovations are, um, based on, um, kind of a combination of things. It’s like a convergence of technologies.

another, you know, overused one is ai, for instance, right? Um, a, you know, ai, ai, everything. But the, um, if you look at, um, you know, advances in materials, you look at, at advances in, uh, nanotech, you know, being able to get down to a, you know, much smaller scale, um, you look at. All of the discoveries around d n a and r n a and and uh, and gene editing and you know where that can possibly go.

Um, and you, you think about the problems of, you know, treating the right individual in the right location in their body that’s affected without creating toxic effects on the re on the rest of the body in an um, , you know, effectively say, monitoring their dosing. Uh, it takes a village, it takes, you know, kind of a combination of technologies.

So I’m a great believer in kind of innovation in these systems that, um, can solve the bigger problems.

What about board of directors? Board of director? , um, you know, board of directors. Uh, I’ve been on some, you know, very effective ones, um, to a certain extent. Uh, you know, that they’re for support and, um, and guidance and, and it kind of depends on the maturity of the, of the management team. Um, you know, sometimes it comes down to kind of advice.

There’s some formalities around, uh, you know, governance and responsibility, fiduciary responsibilities to, to, um, the shareholders and that sort of thing that are kind of the basics of, of, uh, business structure. Um, and, you know, being, being incorporated that, um, you know, you have to maintain. But I’m a believer in, in making sure that.

Management team, uh, feels supported that they have a structure in place for, um, being rewarded and incentivized, you know, and, um, things like stock options and, and things like, uh, uh, periodic review of, of, of, um, the overall, you know, cash compensation plan and making sure that there’s some sort of bonus structure in place.

and, um, giving them support as they’re looking at, um, partnering possibilities, you know, leveraging connections and giving them, you know, some, some guidance on how to even approach that process. Uh, yeah, I mean, I, I kind of wear both the ad advisor and, um, you know, there’s a bit of over. , you know, in the role of, of director and as an independent director, I, I really enjoy kind of helping bridge the gap.

Sometimes there’s tension between investors that may, um, have their own timelines, you know, um, get a little, I impatient about return on investment and the management team that’s doing the best they can to, you know, to deal with some difficult problems and. , I can help kind of moderate a bit there.

Naji Gehchan: And the last word is spread love in organizations.

Paul Hartung: Well, uh, I try to spread a lot of love with my, with the teams I work with. Um, I think it’s maybe part of, part of developing that, um, passion across the organization, if you will, for what we’re doing together, you know, so, , um, I kinda, I kinda lead by doing and, and I try to lead, lead with my behavior as well.

Naji Gehchan: Any final word of wisdom for healthcare leaders around the world?

Paul Hartung: You’re doing important work, you know, keep it up. The, there, there are lots of, uh, big healthcare challenges out there and, um, we all need to be thinking of novel ways to approach them and, and get them to everybody.

Naji Gehchan: Thank you so much, Paul, for being with me today.

Paul Hartung: You’re very welcome. I appreciate it. Thanks

Naji Gehchan: Thank you all for listening to spread love and organization’s podcast. Drop us a review on your preferred podcast platform

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