Of late, there has been a fair bit of moaning and groaning from various quarters about a Canadian ennui when it comes to innovation. But where some just talk, others do; Toronto-based medical technology firm VisualSonics belongs squarely in the latter. Its groundbreaking “micro-ultrasound” product, the Vevo 770, uses an in vivo imaging process that essentially allows for non-invasive drug testing on live animals at the anatomical and molecular level. The private company launched commercially in 2003 and has since sold over 300 systems worldwide. Company officials say sales are between $25-$30 million and characterize VisualSonics' IP portfolio as “significant.” Presiding (with the aid of a lot of really smart people) over this Canadian success story is Tom Little, who joined in 2002, and helped secure an early round of VC financing worth $12 million. Previous to that, Little was EVP of medical software tech company Dicomit Dicom Information Technologies, and in 2005 received the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year 2005 Ontario Region Health Science Award. In March, VisualSonics won the Frost & Sullivan “Best Customer Value” Award. Investors looking to get in on this will have to wait as there are no plans to go public just yet, but in the meantime we asked Little six questions.
• What is the greatest challenge currently facing VisualSonics and what are you doing about it?
We are a very fast-growing technology company with a variety of innovative products and a global customer base that is both elated as well as demanding in terms of desires for new applications and functionality. As a company, our challenge is to constantly balance and evaluate our priorities to ensure that we are executing to plan, best optimizing our limited but very valuable resources and talent, continuing to meet and exceed customer expectations while not “over promising,” and maximizing shareholder value. ? We are meeting this challenge by constantly evaluating and scrutinizing our projects, prioritizing and reprioritizing tasks and activities ? always against our objectives, and maintaining a strong focus and grounding in our core values.
• Who else ? person or company ? do you feel is doing innovative work and in what way?
I think Research in Motion is a great example of excellence in a product meeting a real market opportunity and leveraging a brand and value proposition globally. As a company, RIM has developed a phenomenal competitive advantage in the expertise. The company is extremely innovative and its execution in terms of devices and services is respected worldwide.
• How would you describe your leadership approach/style?
I'm very communicative in style and believe that the best ideas in an organization can come from all areas inside and out. As such, I tend to spend much of my time listening and probing our staff, our customers, thought leads and prospective customers who may be considering our technology. I share vision and create a focus on that vision while directing our teams to our goals, short and long-term. We will win only if we execute as a fast, responsive and highly-focused team. I believe this is where I add value, focus and support.
• The U.S. FDA's “critical path” initiative to modernize the scientific tools behind product development and manufacture has been underway since 2004. What specific impact has that had, and will have, on VisualSonics' business prospects?
The use of in vivo imaging for profiling of disease-specific biomarkers has been explicitly noted by the FDA and highlighted as a key element in its Critical Path initiative. As such, the VisualSonics' instrument, the Vevo 770, is more frequently being used in preclinical studies to better understand diseases and to best test and optimize therapeutics so that they can be more quickly developed into a commercial therapeutic. We believe that this trend will continue to accelerate and that our modality, micro-ultrasound, will become “a pre-clinical instrument of choice.”
• The march of private equity firms snapping up public companies shows no signs of slowing down. Is it time for the public to be worried about losing access to these wealth generating instruments?
This is obviously a major trend right now. While your point is well-taken, I believe there are still many opportunities in the public markets and with other instruments to allow the individual investor to access and benefit from the value of many excellent, young established businesses.
• When you watch a Hollywood film or TV show, what bothers you most about how the depiction of (medical) science and technology is handled?
Science and the understanding of disease is a complex, time-consuming process that involves many hours of work and an intimate understanding of biology, physics, chemistry, physiology and many other variables. Hollywood often minimizes the hard work and complexity of effort involved in scientific problem-solving. On the other hand, science fiction also shows glimpses of how the tools and technologies to gather, analyze and develop models for complex decision-making are evolving. It is probably in a combination of these two realities that the modern day researcher is finding their reality.