American Heart Association Meeting - Third Anniversary of the ds32
We’re in Chicago for the AHA meeting. This marks the third anniversary of the release of the Thinklabs Digital Stethoscope. We first showed the ds32 at AHA 2003 in Orlando.
I promised to use this blog to give you some of the "story behind the story", so here’s the inside story about our first medical conference. These pages will, in the future, reveal the ups and downs of entrepreneurship. Preparing for AHA 2003 is burned into my memory as one of the high points of stress.
November 2003 was the time to "shoot the engineers and take the product to production." Not having a second employee to pull the trigger, I left for Orlando wearing the Marketing and Sales hat.
Since we hadn't started production, I arrived in Orlando with a few production prototypes. Only one unit performed up to my expectations! We didn't yet have the dozens of production tests we now use to ensure consistency of quality. Today we can pump out a few hundred stethoscopes a day that all sound identical.
Refusing to show stethoscopes that didn't demonstrate our true performance, I did an all-nighter before the show, using the full-blown electronics lab I'd packed for the trip to perfect the units. At 8:45am I walked into my first exhibit day with four high performance stethoscopes.
AHA is one of the bigger medical conferences - twelve thousand cardiologists from around the world, and many very sophisticated exhibits. I had decided to start at AHA, since I expected that cardiologists would be the toughest audience.
The show opened, and I steeled myself for the probability that I'd spend three days people-watching. We were next to J&J’s Cordis stent exhibit. They had 16 plasma TV’s (when they cost $25K each), and a 20-foot high replica of a stent with laser light that looked like something borrowed from a Cape Canaveral launch pad. Their booth probably cost more than our R&D budget.
Our first visitors were some of our competitors (most of whom are no longer in the business). Then some venture capitalists showed up, followed by head of research at a large company that doesn't even make stethoscopes.
"Get this right and we'll buy you" he said matter-of-factly and disappeared.
And then cardiologists showed up. At times they stood three deep to wait for a turn to listen to our stethoscopes. The comments were overwhelmingly positive.
Contrary to our expectations, Cardiologists wanted a better stethoscope so they could diagnose with the stethoscope and confirm with an echo, rather than merely echo in search of a diagnosis. We heard this consistently.
Having arrived in Orlando under enormous stress, I left with the validation of the many cardiologists who'd stopped to listen. Not believing anything until proven, I now knew that we really did have something.
I also learned what would continue to be true to this day Ã¢â‚¬â€œ that meeting new people and potential customers is the most stimulating and rewarding aspects of my work.
An hour before AHA 2003 closed, a cardiologist walked up to the booth and listened carefully to the stethoscope. He handed me his card and disappeared. Glancing at the card, it didn't mean much to me Ã¢â‚¬â€œ professor at USC, and a string of degrees and acronyms under his name. As the conference was closing, he returned.
"I've listened to all the other stethoscopes and yours is the best. I'd like to buy one now."
"These are prototypes."
"Sell it to me anyway."
He sat down in the booth to chat and persuade me, and as the workers rolled up the carpet we spoke for another hour. He was warm, unassuming, and could converse about technology like few other physicians I'd ever met. He had planned a trip to Northwestern in January to teach and wanted a scope. I promised him earnestly that I'd make sure he had one by the end of January, and he departed.
At the end of January I called to offer him a prototype.
"Thanks. Would you like to attend my conference in Las Vegas next week? We get about 700 people."
I decided I'd better Google him before booking for Vegas.
I Googled "Max Harry Weil". Give it a shot. If you come across descriptions like "The Father of Critical Care Medicine" you've got him.
I saw Dr. Weil this morning. He's as warm and self-deprecating as ever. I introduced him to people at our booth, as the inventor of the Intensive Care Unit. He brushed off the accolade and embarked on a technical discussion about the stethoscope.