In this episode I sit down with Brian Johnson from MassDevice.com to talk about the creation of his business, how he entered the MedTech industry, and why he feels so passionate about the work that this industry is doing.
- Why he considers himself a paid observer of the medical device industry rather than a part of it.
- How he developed the idea for Mass Device.
- Why he’s made it his mission to cover the MedTech industry.
- How one woman turned her husband’s untimely death into a new product that could save lives.
- How he thinks about his experience interviewing successful people.
Get your ticket to DeviceTalks Live in Minnesota and use the code IMUA for a discount.
Brian Johnson (@brianmassdevice) is the founder of MassDevice.com, an independent Boston-based online publication that provides news and information for the medical device industry and the companies that drive it.
Since 2009, MassDevice (@massdevice) has been the online journal of the medical devices industry, with hour-to-hour coverage of the devices that save lives, the people behind them, and the burgeoning trends and developments within the industry.
“Sooner or later everybody needs a medical device.” – Brian Johnson
– Are you ready to master the waves of medical device product development? Well, wax up your surfboard because you are listening to Inspired by Imua. And here is your medical device product development expert, that Hawaiian-hearted hosted who will help you hang ten, Meghan Alonso.
– [Meghan] E komo mai and aloha. Mahalo for tuning in to another episode of InspiredByImua.com. Today’s guest, Brian Johnson, is the founder of the leading new source for medical devices, MassDevice.com. Brian also started the Device Talks events, which take place all over the country and dive deep into the news of what’s going on in our industry. Today we’ll get a sneak peek into some of the top CEOs of Med Device Interviews, and we’re interviewing the interviewer. So, Brian, are you ready to hang ten?
– [Brian] Um, yeah. I don’t think you’ve ever seen me surf, so.
– [Meghan] Well, we’ll have to change that.
– [Brian] Right, right. I’ve boogie boarded before, but not surfing.
– [Meghan] Okay, next time. Next time you come out here to California.
– [Brian] You just invite me, it won’t take much twisting of my arm to get me to come out west. It’s the first week of April, we’ve already had a snow storm and it was 25 degrees this morning.
– [Meghan] Well, I’m not going to tell you what our weather was.
– [Brian] I’m pretty sure I know what your weather is.
– [Meghan] Okay, so give me some background. How did you end up in the medical device industry?
– [Brian] Well, you know, frankly, I don’t consider myself actually in the medical device industry, I consider myself sort of a paid observer of the medical device industry. I consider myself, you know, I’m in the media so I cover the medical device industry. I mean it’s a long kind of story, but I mean I sort of grew up in the space. My father sold medical devices starting in about 1982.
– [Meghan] Oh, what did he sell?
– [Brian] He sold surgical staplers for US Surgical. So I remember he was actually a rug salesman, and my parents were divorced so I didn’t live with him, but he told me one day, “Oh, I got a new job “and I’m moving to a different part of the state.” He said he was going to sell these things called surgical staplers. I was like, “What, what the heck is that?” And then he showed me them, and I thought they were really cool, they look like toy guns. So you know there’s this kind of joke in my bio … There’s this little joke in my bio about how me and my brother would shoot off these staplers, kind of shoot them at each other. What we didn’t realize until years later, my dad really got upset when we did it, but we didn’t realize until years later that US Surgical was sort of an all commission-based sales team and that they had to pay for their own samples. So we were probably firing off, you know, 5, $10,000 worth of inventory when we were playing toy guns. But so I grew up knowing about the industry but I didn’t really have all that much interest in it. It was my dad’s industry, that’s how I thought about it. I think the one time in my adult life where I had some consciousness of it before I actually really became aware the device industry was– You know, I remember wanting to, I told my dad I was going to vote for Bill Clinton in my first election and he was very upset with me because Bill Clinton, at the time, was saying he was going to do universal health care and he said, you know, “He’s going to screw up the medical device industry. “What do you think puts you through college?” and blah, blah, blah. Fast forward a years later, I was a reporter working at the Eagle Tribune Newspaper up in northern Massachusetts. I had gone to graduate school at Boston University, studied business journalism. And some of the companies that I covered back in ’05, ’06 were companies like Seoul Medical and Abeo Med, Next Stage Medical. They were all kind of local medical device companies. So I had a general awareness of the industry, general awareness of the products they sold, and awareness of the importance to the Massachusetts economy but it really wasn’t until I left the newspaper world and I was working with my father actually, he had started a consulting company, writing sales management practice tools for medical device companies, that I really got to understand the industry from the inside and I just– I started to realize that this was an innovation story, a great one, and certainly one on par with sort of the tech revolution and things like that. I didn’t last very long working at this consulting company, but I did come up with idea for Mass Device when I was there, because I was researching companies and I just couldn’t find a consistent news source that I really thought was up to snuff. I mean, that’s kind of a long way around how we came up with the idea. Initially we launched Mass Device with the idea that I wanted to build a– Actually I wanted to build a Drudge Report for the med tech world. Kind of a links aggregator, like an all you can eat buffet of med tech news. At the time, this was ’07, ’08, I had been doing a lot of work doing sports blogging and stuff like that, so I was learning how to develop an audience. I’ll never forget, there was a magazine called Web 2.0, or Industry, I can’t remember what it was, but I remember the article, I remember it like it was yesterday. It said Blogging for Dollars, How to Make a Fortune Blogging. You’ve got to understand, I went to graduate school, all I wanted to do was be a newspaper reporter. I was in debt $75,000 when I got out of my grad program and my first job in the industry paid me $28,000 a year. So, if you look at the math there, it’s pretty crappy.
– [Meghan] Hey, you got to start somewhere.
– [Brian] Yeah, the newspaper world was just contracting like crazy and, you know, there was a push for entrepreneurial journalism, or I had a bug to try and chase entrepreneurial journalism. I was doing this sort of goofy sports blog, but I read this article and it said, if you can find an industry with a large advertiser base, and the more exclusive the industry the better, then you can actually charge premium advertising rates and make a good living off of it. And it mentioned stuff like Silicon Ally Insider and a couple other tech pubs. That just kind of swirled around in my head for a while, and I said, “Well, wait a minute, “I’m working with these medical device companies, “this seems to be an opportunity.” And that’s kind of how I ended up in the med tech space. I will say I had a great opportunity when I was working with the consulting company to go inside some of the bigger medical device companies. I actually at one point had written a, and had been contracted by Division of Boston Scientific to do a short movie about about product safety And so that gave me the opportunity to kind of go into the company and actually take a look around and see what these companies were like on the inside.
– [Meghan] Yeah, your intimate up close view.
– [Bran] Yeah, you know what really struck me though, honestly, was the intelligence of the people in the space. That still strikes me to this day, that this is an industry with really smart people and you can’t fake it in the med tech world. You can’t be an idiot. You have to do your homework. I think a couple things still really– I really firmly believe in, still seven years later, eight years later, is that this is an amazing industry that’s doing revolutionary work in the field of technology, and far too often the mass media pays attention to social networks and sort of, what I call incremental technology gains that are really kind of, you know, they seem a little frivolous when you compare them to what they do in the medical device world where they’re really changing the world, in my opinion. I do feel like it’s my mission to give these stories the appropriate attention they deserve.
– [Meghan] What, a life-changing medical device doesn’t get the same news as the Kardashians? Come on.
– [Brian] Well, until Kim, or Khloe, or Kris has to either get a Pacemaker put in or, you know, god forbid a prosthetic limb, I don’t think we’re going to hear too much about them. But there is, in the mass media world, I mean there is a real tendency to cover the gee wiz technology. So you will see, like I saw the other day on Vice Dr. Robert Greenburg and Second Sight Medicals– Oh boy, I’m going to forget, Argus, I almost called it the Occulus. The Argus Two retinal implants. You know, that’s the kind of, that’s sort of the dream technology right, everybody loves those stories. But, you know, that’s an amazing technology and I’m not taking anything away from it, but if you think about what, you know, just the stent has done in terms of changing lives, or endoscopic surgery, what’s that done to change the course of human events. I mean that’s amazing, revolutionary technology and really we just totally take it for granted. We had an early saying here that was sooner or later everybody needs a medical device, so read about it first on MassDevice.com.
– [Meghan] Oh, I like it.
– [Brian] Yeah, you should have seen our– We had some really bad looking ads on it, but it’s just fascinating to me. It’s one of the few technologies in the world that almost without a doubt every single person in the world will use at one time, at least, and probably multiple hundreds of times in their lives.
– [Meghan] Yeah. Yeah, that’s really powerful stuff and I I like how you just get to the passion behind it all, and that’s kind of what fuels my company and this podcast as well.
– [Brian] Yeah, I mean, you know I’m amazed, still about how many devices come as a result of someone having a hardship in health care or someone dying, someone losing a loved one. There’s a personal story to a lot of these, almost every device I’ve ever seen, there’s some personal impetus behind it.
– [Meghan] So speaking of stories, can you share one of those stories that Mass Devices covered or maybe kind of the why. Why someone has started their company and just what fueled their passion for that.
– [Brian] Oh sure, I mean there’s, I mean there’s literally hundreds. A recent story that I think is really special is, and it kind of exemplifies this is the story of Om Cardiovascular. It’s a non-invasive test to determine if you have coronary artery disease. It’s a seven-minute test that replaces a nuclear stress test. And really what it does is– Do you remember when Tim Russert passed away and, you know, he had plaque in his left anterior descending coronary artery?
– [Meghan] Mm-hmm
– [Brian] That’s…
– [Meghan] It’s a mouthful for sure.
– [Brian] I’m not a doctor so I’m always– I always try not to get to far over my skis with this stuff. So this technology arose as a result of this woman Marie Johnson who was, she was a grad student at the time, she was working on a digital stethoscope in Minnesota. I think she was working on a contract with 3M or something like that. She had two small kids, one baby, I think he was definitely under a year old, and then another maybe three or four year-old. And her husband was 42 years-old, perfect health, goes to the gym one day and he has a massive heart attack and dies.
– [Meghan} Oh no.
– [Brian] And so this woman is left, like literally holding this tragedy. She’s got these two little babies and no husband. She had used, in her digital stethoscope, she had used her husband as an example of a healthy heart. When they found out what was wrong with his heart, he had blockages in over 90% of his arteries, so he had a very unhealthy heart and he didn’t know it. He was kind of walking around, unbeknownst to him, and a lot of people are this way.
– [Meghan] And the stethoscope didn’t know it either.
– [Brian] No, no, no. The only way you can determine it is like a nuclear stress test.
– [Meghan] Which you wouldn’t normally have done as a regular work up.
– [Brian] You would only have that done if there was a real reason to look for it, and they had none. She even had what she calls a premonition that he was going to die and leave her with to raise the kids alone and made him go to the cardiologist and they gave him a full workup. They said, “No, he’s fit, perfect, “he’s the model of health.” And so she, you know, in her grief, dug into the data because she’s a scientist and she wanted to find out what what went wrong. You know, lo and behold she’s sitting there late at night studying this data for months on end and she finally discovers this, for lack of a better word because I can’t remember the exact terminology, but she discovers this blip, this sound. It turns out that this is the indicator of the blockage. And she’s able to get a grant, start a company, and has basically raised money all through high net worth individuals. Now she’s brought it to market in Germany and she’s bringing it through the FDA right now.
– [Meghan] Wow.
– [Brian] And conducting a massive clinical trial. It’s pretty amazing because if you can catch this you can cure it. I remember I visited her in Minnesota and I just said, “Look, you’ve got to give me that test “because I’ve got two little babies at home “and I want to make sure that I’m going to be around too.” So she actually let me try it out, performed it on me, or had one of her staff do it, and it was interesting. It was great to get those results back, thankfully they were positive. I just think like that’s the classic med tech story.
– [Meghan] Yeah it is, and …
– [Brian] And there’s a million of them, I promise, a million of them.
– [Meghan] And while you were talking I looked that up and I’ll link to that article in my show notes. I see that you put that out in October on Mass Device. Speaking of Mass Device and all the great stories there, tell us how we can get ahold of those stories, I know there’s a few different ways that we can grab those or stay updated and we can have them arrive in our inbox at certain times.
– [Brian] Sure, yeah. We’re a free publication so you can just go to visit us at MassDevice.com any time and we put up tons of content. So we put up about 15 stories a day on average.
– [Meghan] Wow.
– [Brian] Yeah, we work pretty hard around here. Our editorial staff is fantastic, and that’s really, I think, what has set us apart over all they years. We have a daily newsletter, Plus Five, the top five stories of the day delivered right to your inbox. We also have a podcast called Device Talks Podcast. You can hear Marie’s story on there. You can hear a lot of other really inspiring stories too. And then we have our print publication, Medical Design and Outsourcing Magazine, and the companion website to that as well. Then we have our Device Talks Live events, which kind of take this format and bring it to different cities in the US.
– [Meghan] Okay, Brian, so speaking of that magazine and those live events, I know you have some freebies for our guests. I will have a digital download of that magazine for you and then tell us what you have for us on the Device Talks end, and when that next Device Talks event is.
– [Brian] Sure. About a year ago, exactly, Mass Device was acquired by a company called WTWH Media, and as a result of the acquisition we launched a publication, a hard copy magazine called Medical Design and Outsourcing Magazine, which we call our technical publication for the medical device world. We are four issues in. So this is kind of cool, you take a bunch of online guys and give them a chance to kind of create a magazine, which had its own unique sets of challenges and opportunities. But we just released our Trends and Medical Devices issue, which we’re really proud of. I’m really excited by the cover because we put a couple little carrots in there for our readers. We actually have a surgical robot wearing a Fitbit.
– [Meghan] We like that. And we like carrots for sure.
– [Brian] Yeah, I was excited about that. So we’re going to be giving away that to your readers, or to your listeners, and I think you’ll be able to provide them a link to the to download the issue. We also can give away some subscriptions to that too, we’re happy to do so. And also, Device Talks is our live interview series. We’ve been holding it for five years now. We hold this event in four key med tech markets, Boston, Minnesota, California, Southern California primarily and then down in the south, we just held one in Research Triangle. Our next event is in Minnesota, and it’s on June 6th, and we’re going to have CEOs from Teleflex Medical, from Smiths Medical, from Reed Biotics Medical, and also people who are very high up and sort of head of R and D, chief technology officers from St. Jude’s, Smith, Medtronic. This is about 200-250 people coming together, it’s a full day of content, workshops, live interviews, networking, drinks, dinner. It’s a great event, we’ve been holding it, like I said, since 2011, and it just keeps getting better every year. It’s a great way to connect with our audience. It’s a great way to give people a chance to meet some of these leaders that we find really inspiring. And what we’re going to do, because you’re an old friend and I’m excited for your new podcast, is to …
– [Meghan] Thank you.
– [Brian] Is to provide a little discount for your listeners. We’re going to have that code be, and I’m going to … Imua.
– [Meghan] It is, it’s Imua. It’s I-M-U-A, so you can add that promo code in at checkout and …
– [Brian] Yeah, you get a nice discount on the registration. So that’s because Meghan, you’ve been a terrific friend over the years and I love working with you.
– [Meghan] I like working with you too, and I really enjoy the Device Talks events. It’s just a very intimate setting and Brian has some of the top CEOs in the medical device industry onstage. Even though I say “onstage,” it’s, again, it’s just very intimate setting and very personal, and you get to watch that live so you feel like you’re a part of it. As much as I love audio and podcasts, there’s just something special about being in the room and seeing the person, and watching the expressions on their face when they’re going through their interview, and more importantly just telling the story behind their company.
– [Brian] Yeah, and you get to learn some really, I think, really cool facts and personal stories about some of these folks who, you know, these are publicly traded CEOs, they’re powerful, powerful people and it’s nice to hear, sometimes about how they grew up or different things that shaped their lives and shaped their leadership style. I kind of think of it over the years that I’m writing a management book that only I really get to read. You know. I’ve interviewed dozens of these CEOs over the years and I keep trying to find, actually through my whole journalism career, interviewing really successful people trying to find out if there’s some formula for success. I don’t think I really have come across anything, in terms of too much common threads, but I guess it’s a lifelong pursuit.
– [Meghan] Mm-hmm Yeah, well some of– Let’s talk about some of the the interviews that you’ve done. A few of them that stand out in my mind, Joe Kiani of Masimo talked about how he started the company in his garage. And another top level CEO mentioned that he frequently holds all staff meetings at 2am. So that was interesting. What other quirky things have you picked up along the way?
– [Brian] Well, I mean there was, back in our first event in Orange County we interviewed Mike Mussallem, from Edwards Lifesciences, and his dad was an exterminator, and I forget the Yellow Pages ad he had but it was it was a really good one. It was something like, you know– Shoot, I can’t remember it, I’m sorry.
– [Meghan] We’ll have to find it and I’ll put it in the show notes.
– [Brian] It was a great one because it was– He grew up in Gary, Indiana, tough town. Oh, “Killing is My Business,” I think it was. It was something crazy like that. And he said they would get some phone calls, some interesting phone calls. But I think really, what touched me about that interview was he talked about his brother, who had– I’m not sure if he’s still alive or not, but he has Downs Syndrome, and it really impacted Mike’s life in terms of he was very protective and then just always hated bullies as a result of it. And there’s always these moments where you kind of, you know, as an interviewer you’re hoping, you’re hoping you can get those moments and when they happen they’re just, it’s so magical. And it’s never the question you write down on the index card, it’s always kind of when the it’s just a conversation. And you just say, “Hey, where’d you grow up?” And it kind of leads you down that path. Yeah, the same way with Fred Lampropoulos from Merit Medical. He’s the one who talked about his 2am staff meetings. Which is true, apparently, although I don’t think he’s had one in a while.
– [Meghan] Maybe I shouldn’t have said “frequent.” Every so often, every few years maybe.
– [Brian] I think you only need to have one to have that be a looming threat.
– [Meghan] Yeah.
– [Brain] There’s so many. You know We’ve been so lucky. We’ve had a lot of these interviews just happen to kind of happen organically around big events. You know, I remember we got Joe Almeida from Covidien like a week after he took the CEO office.
– [Meghan] Wow, so you were probably his first interview as Covidien CEO.
– [Brain] Yeah, it was his first interview. It’s amazing too because now, I’ve been in the business long enough and done this long enough, that I have interviewed some of these guys, you know, before they took the job, after they took the job, and then they’ve left their jobs. We outlived Covidien, which cracks me up. I mean like, now that Covidien got bought by Medtronic, like Covidien was the 800 pound gorilla when we started, and now they’re gone and we’re still here. It’s pretty wild. But there’s always one story that kind of sticks out to me, one moment, those are just so great. Because I think a lot of people really want the chance to open up. And I’ve found that the more successful they are the more willing they are to talk about it. I mean that’s not really– Like I say to some of these guys afterwards, you know who doesn’t want to be the center of attention for an hour? Who doesn’t want to have a couple hundred people hanging on their every word? There’s a part of all of us that want to do the Inside The Actor’s Studio interview.
– [Meghan] Well Brian, I think our listeners are hanging onto your every word right now.
– [Brian] Well then go to MassDevice.com.
– [Meghan] There you go.
– [Brian] And buy a ticket to Device Talks.
– [Meghan] So again, when you buy that ticket to Device Talks, be sure to type in Imua, that’s I-M-U-A in the field for promo code to get our special discount. Again, go to the show notes page and we’ll have a download available for your magazine.
– [Brian] Yeah, please. We really want– You know we’re trying to really build a publication, again, that has the ability to help shape the industry. We’re doing our best, it’s a work in progress. We welcome feedback, we would love more contributors. And we’re really looking to grow the medical device network that we have into a premier media network. Everything from benchtop engineers to CEOs. I think we get to have a chance to provide everyone with something they can use in their jobs.
– [Meghan] Yeah, I think that’s a great idea. It’ll dominate.
– [Brian] I don’t know. You know, it’s getting harder these days to build media properties. As weird as that sounds, it was actually a little bit easier when we started this, and you’d think that wouldn’t be the case because we have so many, so many things like Facebook and Twitter that amplify your content, but really that kind of makes it– You’re still just kind of feeding the beast of the social networks. You’re actually creating less brand loyalty, so. It was a little bit easier, I think, back in ’07, ’09 when we started this, because– Actually it’s funny, I think we’re one of the original Twitter accounts. We really just somehow had that hooked up to our RSS feed so we’re pumping out stuff on Twitter every time we posted stuff to the site and just had no idea how to use it. We have like 14, 13,000 followers now.
– [Meghan] Wow.
– [Brian] Yeah, so, you know you never know, but it does seem a lot like the more tools we have to play with, the less people tend to gravitate to going to specific websites.
– [Meghan] Yeah, there’s a lot of noise out there.
– [Brian] Yeah, there is. And there’s more and more options today, in terms of information about the medical device world than there was when we started so, you know we’re really thankful for our audience. I mean, they’ve stuck with us through thick and thin. We started this, we were just two people. We wrote over a hundred stories before we launched the website, just so that when we launched it wouldn’t be like a Potemkin village, that there would actually be content on there and archives. You know, I can remember me and my partner, Brad sitting there late at night, typing up news stories that no one was ever going to read. You know? I think about that now and I go, “Oh my God, I could never do that again.” But, you know, we were really focused on making something special here.
– [Meghan] Yeah, and you do have something special. I just want to thank you for being on the show. It’s been a great time, and I’ve learned a lot of cool things. We have some takeaways. So I will link to the Device Talks registration, Medical Design and Outsourcing Magazine, as well as those stories on Marie Johnson and OM Cardiovascular. The Mass Device readable version, as well as the podcast.
– [Brian] Yeah, that’d be great.
– [Meghan] Yeah, and see you in Minneapolis.
– [Brian] All right, are you coming?
– [Meghan] Yeah.
– [Brian] Great. More the merrier. Come out and see us, we love to entertain friends. And we honestly– You know, I’ve always loved to have parties, so I think that that’s– I still think of it like a party and a show.
– [Meghan] It’s very important, yes.
– [Brian] Absolutely.
– [Meghan] All right, well, mahalo, and we will catch you next time.
– [Brian] All right, thanks so much. Thanks for having me.
– [Meghan] He guys, those waves of medical device development can often be rough, so it’s nice to have a family behind you. Good thing we do. The Hawaiian word for family is Ohana, and you can find our ohana in our Facebook group, so just type Inspired by Imua into the search bar to get connected. As a community we can share those stories of inspiration and tips, and just notifications of what’s going on in your world of development, and I’ll see you in there. So until next time, Imua!
– [Voiceover] Mahalo for joining us. If you are new to riding the waves of medical device product development, or if you’ve been in development for a while already, Inspired by Imua is here to surf with you. Want to be a master of the waves? Text HangTen, that’s H-A-N-G-T-E-N to 44222. We’ll send you the Most Common Wipeouts Companies Make in Product Development so you can avoid them and reach master wave status. Again, that’s HangTen to 44222. We publish a new episode every Tuesday, so catch us at InspiredByImua.com. Imua!