Saturday, April 9, 2011

A life well lived


15 years ago, we were on the threshold of  treating ischemic stroke with rapid application of drugs that dissolve the clot blocking blood flow to the brain.  The problem is that the condition must be diagnosed quickly (the therapy is only effective in the first hour or so) and accurately (20% of all strokes involve bleeding rather than interruption of blood flow).   We began to look for ways that paramedics could take a simple measurement to characterize brain attacks, which brought us to Britton Chance.

Dr. Chance was an eminent scientist and inventor who was researching new optical methods for characterizing cerebral blood flow.  He used a unique tri-color infrared light to penetrate the skull and characterize the perfusion of brain tissue.  We provided some research money to see if we could develop this into a practical product, moving the innovation from the lab to the streets.

Chance 2Along the way, I came to know and admire Dr. Chance.  He had won a gold medal in the Olympics, had worked in the Rad Lab at MIT during WWII, and was a pioneer in optical and NMR measurements.   Almost 90, he still came to work every day at U Penn, continuing to innovate and inspire his students.  He always had time to discuss a theoretical point, to share enthusiasm for a device, or to share a story.  He would send us prototypes that were elegant and functional: big, discrete components bolted into metal frames in ways that car engines used to look in the 60’s.  He believed that his instruments could tell us more than just how the brain’s plumbing was working – he used to explain how he could see the foundations of mathematical and verbal thinking if you looked at his data correctly..

Britton passed away last November. I found out about it after attending a Systems Biology lecture where the professor chance 3discussed his pioneering work measuring enzyme-substrate complexes.  They were a theoretical convenience in biology for 30 years, their existence presumed but unknown before he found a way to visualize them directly.  It prompted me to look him up to see how he was doing – I found a long list of recent obituaries.

We always used to say how we hoped we’d grow  up to be Britton, sailing, working,thinking, and enjoying life well past 90.  Like E. Roy John, another mentor who passed away a couple of years ago, he lived life fully and gave back generously.  I’m always glad that I was able to spend time learning from them; I always feel my world has lost a part of it’s foundation when they are gone.

Friday, April 8, 2011

That kind of a week…

I’ve been scarce all week – just an overwhelming amount of work that filled each day.  The calendar didn’t predict it, I had three days open on Monday.  But one meeting ran long, another got tipped to the next day, another split to consume two days, and that was the way of things.  Fortunately my birthday rolled around today, but I was so frazzled that the best remedy was, literally, a few hours in the nature reserve near Fowlmere.

And, for the many birthday greetings, many thanks!  It really made my day.

I think that the dominant lesson this week was ‘leadership’.  The company is adopting new Articles and Directors next week, which means forcibly setting aside the old ones.  This, in turn, requires the assent of the current Director / Founders.  Since most have been only minimally involved with the Company for years, I expected this to be a courtesy call – “Hi, remember us, we’re doing great, your shares have prospered, we’re moving to the next phase, please sign your consent here.”

Not so.

Money in the Company implies money; the document means leverage.  I’ve observed before that no business deal closes until the participants migrate through all seven of the Deadly Sins, and it is true again.

  • I made arrangements for each Founder to have Observer status on the Board, a right to attend meetings, stay informed, and participate in discussions.  Not enough – all want to remain Directors, even though it requires 10 meetings per year.
  • People had ‘in name only’ titles, legacies of their early days with the company.  Each now wants an equivalently meaningful non-executive title, enshrined in the Articles.
  • And surely there are Director’s fees and expenses now that there is cash in the bank?

So, the idea that people spontaneously align in their best interest as shareholders gave way to self-interested alignment with their worst impulses.

I think that this is where the leadership has to start.  There are decisions about allocation of resources, scarce cash and time, that have to be taken.  The project needs support; investors are watching.  By mid-week, it was clear that my consensual style was encouraging bad behavior rather than getting the Company moving into it’s next phase.

I simply needed to declare how things would lay out, keep it simple and follow best practices. Then listen to the objections: if they made sense, take them in, but keep things moving to a firm close.

DSC03510For example: Director appointments need to sunset; I want terms limited to three years. But, in the UK, Director’s must be re-appointed unless voted out. Okay, we’ll do that at the annual meeting.  Sorry, UK law abolished annual meetings, so we’d have to call an extraordinary session.  There is no way to sunset a director except by voting them out. Okay, strike the term limits.

There are twenty issues like this, but we’re licking them one by one.

A year older; a year wiser.  ‘About so many things.