John Abele, co-founder of Boston Scientific, has held many titles throughout his life—founder, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and chairman. But he has long thought of himself first and foremost as an educator.
In fact, it was Abele’s love of educating others that tied him to the job of medical device sales early on in his career. Soon after the Amherst College physics and philosophy double major started working in medical sales in 1960, he found himself drawn to the problem-solving aspect of the medical technology field. “It was a good feeling that it wasn’t just the technology, it was the field of people who were trying to solve very complex problems. I enjoyed that,” says Abele, speaking from his home in Vermont.
The complex and novel nature of medical devices required a sales person to spend time teaching physicians and surgeons how to use them. This was Abele’s specialty: “All of these were sort of new to the field, so a great part of the business was helping them learn about it. So I went out and learned from the experts and then I took what I learned from the experts and fed it back to the others. I’m pretty good in the explaining world,” he says.
Abele was part of the budding medical device industry at a time when he says mom-and-pop companies comprised much of the business. He was familiar with other medtech luminaries, including Bill Cook of Cook Group, Earl Bakken of Medtronic, and surgeons like Michael DeBakey. Soon, Abele decided he wanted to start his own company—“I wanted a piece of the rock.” In 1969, he partnered with an inventor who had a development shop, picking up an equity interest in the company. That company was Medi-Tech, the predecessor to Boston Scientific.
There aren’t many multi-billion-dollar companies that can say they got their start in the basement of a Catholic church rectory. Still fewer can claim a connection to a famous Czech mystic credited with pioneering research into human consciousness (and, not incidentally, with inventing the steerable catheter).
But according to co-founder John Abele, Boston Scientific Corp. (NYSE:BSX) can. The Natick, Mass.-based medical device maker got its start with the steerable catheter invented by Itzhak Bentov, leveraging the platform into a family of catheter-based products that changed the way medicine is practiced.
In a lengthy interview, the first installment of which appears here, Abele told MassDevice about Boston Scientific’s connection with Bentov and his Belmont, Mass.-based lab, why his invention was so revolutionary and how the company won over early skeptics.