Tiffany Wilson on Materializing Atlanta’s MedTech Mecca

The process for medical device commercialization can be a long and complicated road – seemingly just as challenging as device innovation itself. So, in an effort to create a more streamlined operation, grant dollars from the U.S. Department of Commerce and Georgia Research Alliance launched the Global Center for Medical Innovation (GCMI). From the very beginning five years ago, Tiffany Wilson, the force behind GCMI’s device triumphs, has been there every step of the way.

Wilson’s drive to push medical device technology to an efficient go-to-market doesn’t stop at GCMI. She’s actively serving on the board of the Southeastern Medical Device Association and was just announced as a newly appointed member of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship (NACIE). There’s nothing Wilson can’t do, so we sat down with the medtech tycoon to find out how she got her start, GCMI’s recent acquisition of T3 Labs, and her vision for a more diverse sector.

Why did you decide to take the leap into the medical technology field and how did that ultimately lead you to GCMI?

I started my career in management consulting and investment banking in the financial services industry. Coming out of business school, I knew I wanted to gain some operating experience and was looking at technology startups. I was working with a boutique merchant bank in Washington, DC and got involved raising money for a tissue engineering startup out of Boston. When we closed the Series A, I joined the management team of that company to lead corporate finance and strategy. It was a completely serendipitous type opportunity, so I didn’t necessarily choose to get into the medical device industry, but I completely fell in love with it.

I spent six and a half years wearing different hats as you do in a startup. The obvious corporate finance, investor relations, business modeling, that kind of stuff, and also a lot of regulatory work, reimbursement, manufacturing issues, and quality systems. It was my crash course in medical device development. I really enjoyed the process from concept to initial launch where science, medicine, business, and government all have to work together to get a product to market that will benefit patient outcomes.

imageAfter commercial launch, I left and worked at another medtech startup here in Atlanta for a few years when I read about GCMI coming together. I thought the concept was really interesting because I thought if we had access to that early on in the first medical device startup, we could have gone a lot faster. If I could walk into this place and have all these connections and existing infrastructure designed to help me as an entrepreneur startup get to market, that would have been cool.

The funding for GCMI was in place from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA). The grant application and powerpoint slides were there, they just needed someone to bring it to life. So, I got involved at that point about five years ago and we opened our doors four years ago. This is my first time working for a nonprofit and my first time working this closely with the university, so it’s been an interesting journey to say the least.

We want to see an increase in commercialization of novel medical device inventions from academic and research institutions. Having an industry mindset has been an important factor and differentiator for our center. My team is comprised of product development engineers and experts from industry and we focus on the “D” part of the R&D equation. Given how complex and multidisciplinary medical device development and commercialization is, we’ve been able to bring all those pieces of the puzzle together.

Aside from running GCMI you’re actively involved in other initiatives relating to the medtech field, as well as innovation and entrepreneurship in general. How do you keep the balance juggling all these responsibilities?

I think very highly of Lisa Calhoun at Valor Ventures. She’s a friend and I admire her work and what she’s doing. As things relate to healthcare and devices, I’m there for her and her team as an advisor. I serve on the board of the Southeastern Medical Device Association (SEMDA) as past-President. I am also very active on the National Advisory Council for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the Department of Commerce and have been spending time on access to capital issues.

There’s really never a work/life balance, my life is very fluid. There are some days that I’m a really good executive and I’m crushing it at work. Then other days, I’m a great mother and spouse. Some days I’m not either. Rarely, I’m both.

I joke that the only thing I think about is medical device innovation and motherhood and not necessarily in that order. At this point in my life, these are the things I am passionate about and where I spend all my time. We spend a lot of time talking about technology innovation and entrepreneurship around the dinner table! It also doesn’t hurt that there are some amazing people working in this space who have also become dear friends.

With the medical device technology here in Atlanta. How have you seen it grow and how do you think it needs to improve?

When I moved here, I noticed Atlanta seemed to be very siloed with everyone trying to do their own thing. What I’ve seen over the last five years is the breaking down of those silos. Finally people are starting to collaborate more and work together on different initiatives, rather than recreating the wheel over and over again. That’s got to continue in the medtech industry here for us to be successful.

It’s tricky moving technology from an academic setting to the market. Now, in a four to five-mile radius, all the critical assets and infrastructure to go from a medical device concept, all the way through development, to preclinical testing and trials are in place without leaving Midtown. It’s really about connecting people and having the right processes and contracts in place to facilitate the flow of that very rapidly.
I’m seeing an openness and people getting excited about working together. A big piece that’s missing is capital. It’s a challenge everywhere, but investors in Atlanta have not really been comfortable with medtech. My hope is that we get some case studies together of people efficiently using capital with GCMI and T3 Labs and getting to market quickly. If we can start to build momentum on that process and take some of the ambiguity out so it’s more predictable, I believe we can start to attract more capital. The innovation is here, the development infrastructure is here, now we just need the funding.

Can you talk a little bit about acquiring T3 Labs? What went into that acquisition?

We’ve collaborated with T3 Labs, which has been part of Emory Healthcare, for a long time. T3 Labs is located within Technology Enterprise Park, where there is an interest in establishing an innovation neighborhood to support Georgia Tech’s vision and strategy for economic growth. As an affiliate of Tech, we are keenly interested in supporting whatever we can do on that economic development front.

Many new medical devices must go through the preclinical trial phase and provide that data in their submission to the FDA. There are very specific regulations around policies and procedures that have to be in place for the FDA to take that data. We’ve got all the development engineers, the core build infrastructure and bench testing here at GCMI. At T3, they have the follow on to that with preclinical testing and training. By combining these functions in an efficient process and a culture that supports medtech innovation and entrepreneurship, we can iterate really quickly and get to market faster.

Over the last year we’ve been working together to build that process and know that it works. So the acquisition was just a natural progression of that, we just need to be under the same umbrella. It’s been great to see my team here at GCMI working with the preclinical team at T3 and both groups have learned a lot about the other’s processes. The innovators and startups, unless they’ve done it multiple times, are not really sure how to navigate the transition between the engineering team at GCMI and the preclinical team. In the end, we are helping them anticipate what the next step in the process is and make connections along the way so everyone wins, including the patient.

Why did you decide to stay and build this in Atlanta?

Nothing like this existed in Atlanta before, so there is definitely a critical gap that we are filling. I’m really looking forward to working with the experts at T3 to continue to build upon our work. We also got an EDA grant this year to capitalize a seed fund and launch a medtech accelerator at GCMI. I’m targeting launching that in the first quarter of 2017.

In five years from now, Atlanta can be the place for the most capital efficient product development go-to marketplace. We’ve got GA Tech, GCMI, T3, Emory Healthcare, Piedmont is doing some amazing work, so why not? It’s easier and cheaper. It’s expensive enough to develop some of these technologies, you may as well find savings and efficiencies where you can.

How is it being a female leader in the medical technology field?

It’s surprising. For me, I’ve always worked in a male-dominated field and generally speaking I’m the only woman at the table. I hadn’t really thought about it until recently, especially having a daughter. I’m starting to see the reality and want to support women and diverse teams. Diverse management teams yield better returns to shareholders. How do we stimulate and encourage more female technologists to get involved in that process? A lot of times I think they just don’t know who to ask or that it is even an option.

So at the SEMDA, we launched Medtech Women@SEMDA to help address this gap. Georgia Tech is a great example of the growing number of female technologists. Half their BME students are women, so they have done a great job with diversity on that front. We know a lot of women are involved in technology development in medtech, but I’m not seeing them start companies or even involved in the entrepreneurial process. Not everyone should be an entrepreneur, but they can be involved in the process as founders and advisors. With Medtech Women@SEMDA, we want to provide a platform to mentor and connect professional development not only to women in the industry but on the technology and clinical side as well.

Interested in learning more about the work at GCMI? Follow Tiffany and team along their journey on Twitter and LinkedIn.