Women in Medtech: Deborah Kilpatrick - The Bioengineer

Deborah Kilpatrick Cardio DXDeborah Kilpatrick, PhD, is senior vice president at genomic diagnostics company CardioDx, which has been recognized in the Wall Street Journal Technology Innovation Awards, TIME Magazine's Top 10 Medical Breakthroughs, and the 2012 Edison Awards. Deborah was formerly at Guidant Corporation as a Director of R&D and New Ventures, and she currently has various advisory roles for the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, and the Association of Women in Science. In 2011, Deborah co-founded the inaugural MedtechVision conference, focused on highlighting women leaders from all facets of the medtech sector.

MD+DI: How did you get your start in the medical device and technology industry?

Deb Kilpatrick: I realized in graduate school, during my PhD research in cardiovascular bioengineering, that I wanted to work in industry and not in academics. Given my technical focus and interest, the medtech sector was the obvious choice for me, however, I did not know what that actually meant in terms of what I would do. So I moved to Silicon Valley and did consulting for two years while I figured out where I would fit. I joined the R&D team at Guidant Corporation in 1998, which was a super exciting time to be a part of medtech and at Guidant. This whole series of decisions was such an important determinant of my career, and I am thankful for all the opportunities I have had to date and for the many people who provided them for me.

MD+DI: What important challenges does the medtech industry face in the next 5 years?

DK: We clearly have no shortage of innovative ideas, cutting edge technologies, or new products from what I can see. However, there are very complex questions about how to navigate the relationships between emerging products and the regulatory and reimbursement hurdles they face in the US market. So given that so much is happening globally, more and more of the daily dialogue is about international activity--not just clinical trial work, but broad commercialization strategies in many geographies. The challenge for management teams, especially in emerging companies, is that the ideal choice of where to place your commercial footprint is now less obvious than ever before. Though reimbursement hurdles are often highlighted as challenging innovation, I hold the view that these can often be good for innovation in terms of forcing us to integrate new efficiencies into our products and the way we deliver them. I have personally learned a tremendous amount in my role at CardioDx by delineating cost savings and cost effectiveness of our technology as key innovations we are bringing the system. Finally, I think some of the most intriguing challenges the medtech sector faces in the coming decade is how to deliver more advanced products into the settings of primary care and patient-centered medical homes. We are entering an era of major patient empowerment from all directions, the implications of which we must all seriously consider.

MD+DI: How can more women get involved in the medtech industry?

DK: I will first give a simple answer to this: "Just ask." We sometimes need to be more comfortable simply asking for guidance and advice to pursue our specific career interests. I have rarely been given a "no" when I have asked for such guidance, and honestly, those people who give you a "no" are unlikely to be the best help for you in the long run, anyway. I think this is one area where social media has really moved the ball fast and far downfield for women in the medtech sector. Like everywhere else, colleagues from all over the world with the same professional interests now have unprecedented access to simply finding one another--however, what is also notable is the degree of access this provides to colleagues at all levels and stages of their careers. For example, our MedtechWomen LinkedIn group has broad representation among founders/owners, executives, directors and managers, and individual contributors. I would argue that getting professional advice and guidance, which can be the key first step to getting access inside any industry, has never been easier.

MD+DI: Are there barriers for women in medtech?

DK: This is such a multifaceted question, but one can at least start by looking at numbers. There are comparable numbers of men and women at entry- and mid-level ranks among companies and firms in the medtech sector. If you consider, for example, student demographics in the major biomedical engineering programs at US universities, there are more women than men in some of these programs. Yet, as is the case in many sectors, there is quite a difference in the numbers of women and men in leadership roles of medtech companies and firms--despite the fact that many major corporations are genuinely seeking ways to change historical patterns and diversify management. In medtech, we have needs for deep domain expertise (e.g., reimbursement, regulatory) typically found in smaller, heavily networked communities where who you know can drive what opportunities come your way. In part, this is a good thing, because medtech has so many types of risk, that hiring experts you know is a pretty straightforward means of risk mitigation. And given so much startup/emerging company activity in medtech, risk mitigation is critically important to ensure our most innovative products do make it to the bedside--especially in this economic climate. But all of these factors, taken together, can create hurdles for diversifying leadership among medtech companies and firms, in that historical patterns for management hiring are slower and harder to change. In the end, we all agree that we need the best talent in the medtech sector--the tricky part is how to find those leaders, get their ideas in the spotlight, and ensure they are chosen for the right key roles.

MD+DI: What advice for women would you give for pursuing a medtech career?

DK: The single piece of advice I find myself most often giving other women, in any sector or field, is "Know your stuff." If you want to be part of the conversation, so to speak, you need to be sure you have something meaningful to say. When we founded the 2011 MedtechVision conference ( http://medtechwomen.org/ ), this was our most important premise: that we were highlighting these women leaders in medtech, not because they were women, but because they were experts at the top of their game. I take this very seriously myself and spend a great deal of time self-educating, which means I have to read constantly and not be afraid to ask a lot of questions. Healthcare has become such a complex part of the global economy, and it can be tough to just monitor all the drivers of change. And that brings me to the most important advice when hiring a team: consciously surround yourself with people who know way more than you do, give them resources, and then get the heck out of their way.