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Editor's note: The Harbert College of Business is committed to developing a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem for students, faculty, industry, and alumni that will fuel new venture creation. The story that follows is one of eight in a series entitled, "Inspired Entrepreneurship." Showcasing the experience and expertise of Harbert alums who have created successful business enterprises of their own will help equip our students for entrepreneurial success.
“You must know who you are and what you believe in, because that’s what’s going to sustain you through the tough times – and there will be tough times ... These are the deep breath moments that cut to your core. Knowing who you are, knowing what you can do and what you believe is what will get you through to the other side."”
Mark Forchette, a 1981 graduate of the Harbert College of Business with a degree in Marketing, remembers when he first decided he was driven to become a CEO.
“I was working the front desk at the local Howard Johnsons motel in Perry, Georgia at age 17,” says Mark, “and in walks a gentleman who checks in under the name ‘Ray Kroc.’ So, I ask him ‘You’re not THE Ray Kroc, founder of McDonalds, are you?’ And he says, ‘Yes, I am.’ So, we sat down in the lobby for an extended conversation about all things business related. That was a life-changing experience. It was then and there that I became inspired to become a CEO. I looked back on that experience when I decided to leave Alcon to be a first time CEO at OptiMedica, and that long-term goal drove me.”
As part of its Inspired Entrepreneurship initiative, the Harbert College of Business sat down with Mark, an accomplished medical technology executive with demonstrated success transforming industries and driving breakthrough technologies to market leadership. Our conversation reveals how that moment – and many more critical decisions along the way – shaped his journey to entrepreneurial success.
"I saw a deep layer of expertise in lasers at OptiMedica that was truly
HCOB: You began your career in the medical technology industry as a sales representative for Grieshaber & Company, Inc., where you ultimately became vice president of U.S. sales and marketing. You then led the company through its acquisition by Alcon. How did that experience shape the next step in your professional career?
Forchette: I learned a lot about strategy and tactical execution during the sale and integration of Grieshaber into Alcon. The entire process was like drinking from a fire hose, a master class in finance, sales, management and leadership. We totally transformed the surgical market with a string of disruptive innovations and a team that could run through walls. I stayed nine years before being approached by the legendary venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, an investor in OptiMedica. The OptiMedica experience exposed me to venture capital backed entrepreneurship and four critical components of start-up success: a team that functions like a well-oiled machine, a dynamite technology that does what you say it does, sophisticated investor support and insightful board engagement
HCOB: So, you decided to make the move – your first into a CEO position. What was it you saw at OptiMedica that convinced you that this struggling company was worth taking on the challenge?
Forchette: This was a big leap for me, so the quality and expertise of the investors – Brook Byers, in particular – stood out. We connected immediately. We had similar backgrounds and interests, not to mention it was clear from the start that he was committed – not only to the prospects of the company but to me personally and professionally. That support proved to be critical a few years down the road, when we experienced the rollercoaster ride of progress, prospects and pivots every start-up faces.
One reason Mark Forchette decided to become CEO at
The second key factor in making my decision was the tremendous promise of the underlying technology, the science itself. I saw a deep layer of expertise in lasers at OptiMedica that was truly world-class, and game changing.
And third was the team. OptiMedica was a team of passionate, rock star talent. For a start-up to succeed, you need all three – experienced, engaged and supportive investors, a core technology second to none, and a team passionately driven to succeed.
Finally, the opportunity epitomized exactly the kind of challenge I enjoy. I thrive on turning projects around, finding diamonds in the rough, and driving commercial success. OptiMedica was exactly that – it was “a well-defined problem nearly solved.” I love that expression.
HCOB: You spent six and a half years building OptiMedica into an extremely successful company in the ophthalmology industry before selling it to Abbott Labs, right? But the story isn’t that simple, is it?
Forchette: No, not at all. There were a number of shifts in strategy and market focus along the way, including a difficult decision about half way through my tenure to sell off our retina product line and reinvest all the proceeds from that sale into the development of a laser cataract system for a market that didn’t even exist at the time.
HCOB: What was so difficult about the decision to pivot products and markets?
Forchette: The decision to shift product focus was audacious, because one of our founders was a world class retina surgeon, and we were transacting away something very meaningful to him. But the breakthrough potential of laser cataract technology and the huge market potential was obvious. What was unique about the decision was that instead of returning any of the proceeds from the sale to investors as is typically the case, we reinvested that money immediately into the laser cataract development effort. In essence, we went from a revenue generating company back to a start-up with no commercial products and no revenue stream.
And that’s where the backing of the Board of Directors – especially Brook’s credibility and leadership – came in. Some of the investors weren’t happy to start at square one again, but it ultimately proved to be a clever – and importantly, non-dilutive – self-financing that allowed us to seize the opportunity. The strategy and allocation of capital proved fruitful in the end with the successful development and commercialization of the Catalys precision laser system and sale of the company to Abbott in early 2014.
HCOB: This time you stayed on to integrate the company, but you didn’t stay long. Why not?
Forchette: I find it exhilarating to be a start-up CEO. Abbott is an awesome company, and they already had a great leader. Once I was CEO of OptiMedica, there was no going back.
HCOB: Six months later you join Delphinus, another struggling start-up, but this time in an entirely different marketplace – breast cancer screening – that seemingly had little in common with the ophthalmology space you’d occupied your entire career. How’d you come to make that decision?
Forchette: The day before I left Abbott to “take a year off,” I was in San Francisco at the Palace Hotel for a Wilson Sonsini conference, and the recruiter I used to hire some of my VPs came up and asked me what I was planning to do next. I told him, "I'm taking a year off to just try and relax." And he said, "Well, it's a shame you wouldn't move to Ann Arbor..." (This was a great recruiting technique – it really set the bait for me).
I said, "Who says I wouldn't move to Ann Arbor?" My son was graduating from high school and he was thinking about Michigan, and I'm an absolute car fanatic, so I said, "I might move to Ann Arbor. Why?" He said, "Well, there's this really cool company…" and he started describing Delphinus' technology to me. My mom had breast cancer, so this resonated with me on a very personal level.
In addition, the Delphinus product was an innovative water-based system that sounded a lot like some of the technology we developed at OptiMedica. I’d also met the chairman of the board, Paul McCreadie, and really respected him. The opportunity also met my criteria of a disruptive technology designed to address an unmet need, with a high caliber core team and great investors. And since I had executed three transactions in ophthalmology, CEO opportunities in that space were beginning to pop up on my radar screen. I put them all on a spreadsheet, along with Delphinus, and began looking them over. I wanted to do something super uncomfortable – that’s what drives me. I like disruptive technologies. I like to go into a market that’s on autopilot and flip it up. I like things that make me sweat.
Delphinus' Board of Directors includes some of the most experienced investors and life sciences experts in the medical device industry.
HCOB: And once again, your relationship with KPCB came into play, right?
Forchette: Yes – relationships are so key. Brook Byers called me said, "Mark, why don't you bring all your research up here to Kleiner Perkins? You and I are going to spend the day together and find your next company."
So, we sat down and went through all the companies on my spreadsheet – including Delphinus. At the end of the day he said, "You know, you spent 25, 30 years in ophthalmology. You've got all these relationships." I was so prepared to hear him say “You should pick one of these ophthalmology companies," but instead he said, "This breast imaging company is really intriguing."
HCOB: That was it?
Forchette: No. Brook knows that when you have a hypothesis about a new technology, it is critical to test it with customers. He said, " The head of radiology at Stanford is a friend of mine. We're going to have a meeting with him, and I want you to present this opportunity to him, and we’ll see what he says."
Now, this physician is highly respected, very successful. He has an entire lab of engineers working on a wide range of new technologies, and Brook is a potential investor in many of them. He's not going to B.S. Brook.
So, we have the meeting, and I tell him what I knew about the Delphinus technology at the time. And then Brook did something I thought was incredible. He said to the doctor, " Mark has been in ophthalmology for almost 30 years. He knows every ophthalmologist in the industry. He stays at their homes, they're great friends. They complete each other's sentences. He's got all these companies that he could go into in ophthalmology, and it would be super comfortable. He could do that, or, he could go into this new space where he doesn't know a soul, he's never worked in this market before, we have no idea if the technology is real or not. On top of that, it's capital equipment, and it doesn’t have a consumable component to the revenue stream.”
HCOB: That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement…
Forchette: He made it sound like the worst decision in the world. But the doctor said, "I understand all that, but if this technology really does what they say it does, I think you should do it."
HCOB: That must have been quite a surprise – the confidence of that statement coming from such a renowned radiology expert at Stanford.
Forchette: Yes, I was kind of floored. Brook and I walked out, sat on a park bench on the Stanford campus, and I said, "Well, I didn't expect that." And Brook said, "Yeah. That's pretty telling."
“I know a market disruption when I see it, and this experience proved to me that the Delphinus technology had clear potential to save lives. I didn’t know radiology, but what I did know is how to take a disruptive technology and drive it home to realize its true potential."”
And that’s exactly what testing the hypothesis does – it clarifies things. I know a market disruption when I see it, and this experience proved to me that the Delphinus technology had clear potential to save lives. I didn’t know radiology, but what I did know is how to take a disruptive technology and drive it home to realize its true potential.
So, I said, "I think I should do this." And Brook said, "Yeah, I think you should." So, I left my 30-year career comfort zone in ophthalmology and moved into radiology. I love to color outside the lines, and I knew my skill set could make a difference. And now Brook, my friend and mentor, is an investor through his own venture firm outside of KPCB.
HCOB: There’s so much to pull from out of all these experiences – what would you say to students or business professionals contemplating an entrepreneurial career? What would be your most important piece of advice?
Forchette: Other than testing the hypothesis, I think the most important thing to remember is that you must know who you are and what you believe in, because that’s what’s going to sustain you through the tough times – and there will be tough times. Times when you have your back against the wall and everybody’s telling you it can’t be done. Times when there’s no oxygen in the room and it’s literally hard to breathe. Times when your cash is going to run out six months before your breakthrough project is complete, and when everyone wants an answer but there are none, no guarantees.
These are the deep breath moments that cut to your core. Knowing who you are, knowing what you can do and what you believe is what will get you through to the other side.
The fact is – entrepreneurs are risk takers that swing for the fence when it is much easier to bunt. As a result, sometimes we hit home runs and sometimes we strike out. Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs – a record that stood untouched for decades – be he also struck out 1,330 times. I think audacious swings, counterbalanced by hard work, diligence and passion are worth every ounce of risk if they have even the slightest chance to deliver a better world.
It’s in the Auburn Creed – the Creed is who I am. The personal authenticity, the honesty, the integrity, the human touch, the importance of relationships as laid out in the Creed are critical to success – in business and in life.