Entrepreneurship runs in Fletcher Wilson’s veins – quite literally. As founder and CEO of InterVene, a Fogarty Institute graduate that has developed a minimally invasive device for the treatment of severe venous disease in the legs, Fletcher has many of the traits that make a successful leader and innovator. That includes a penchant for identifying problems and finding solutions, combined with tenacity, strong soft skills and a wicked sense of humor – along with the realization that it’s vital to seek out individuals with more experience in specialized areas to enable the company to grow.
Prior to founding InterVene, Fletcher was a Stanford Biodesign Fellow, where he developed the concept for InterVene’s BlueLeaf System. Previously, he served as the lead engineer at InSite Medical. Fletcher earned an MS from Stanford in Mechanical Engineering and a BS from the University of Pennsylvania in the same discipline. He is the first-named inventor on 12 issued patents.
We had the pleasure of catching up with Fletcher right after he won the TCT Shark Tank Innovation award of 2019 among a very competitive field (only a 16% acceptance rate) of the best companies that show promise to disrupt healthcare. Fletcher shared his background in the field, the back story on his company and inside tips on how to prepare for these types of competitions.
Q. How did you first get into healthcare?
A. When I arrived at Stanford, I had never thought of medical devices as an industry or career path. It just wasn’t on my radar. It wasn’t until my second semester of grad school that I had the opportunity to take courses offered by Stanford Biodesign, which helped crystalize the direction of my career and my passion for the industry. I did an internship at Boston Scientific, and I was hooked.
Later, I joined the Stanford Biodesign Innovation Fellowship program where I was thrown into a clinical setting to identify needs, which ultimately led to the founding of InterVene.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for InterVene?
A. Our Biodesign team of four was at the “divide and conquer” stage of the fellowship, all of us looking at different areas within vascular disease. I was spending a lot of time looking at hemodialysis access failure, working with vascular surgeons and other specialists at Stanford Hospital.
Serendipitously, I started noticing a lot of patients coming into the clinic with venous disease and venous ulcers, and a couple of them really made a lasting impression. I remember this one man in his mid-50s who had become a frequent visitor to Stanford’s vascular clinic due to ongoing venous leg ulcers. They tried everything to help him, but ultimately, all they could do was prescribe compression therapy as the best available option to control his swelling and pain. I saw him in the hall, almost to the point of tears from the frustration of being told that the only remedy to his problem was to wear tight socks.
Digging into the literature a bit more, it became very clear that deep valve failure was a huge problem with a very low-tech solution. I decided to look further into the issue, and we found an Italian surgeon who was successfully treating patients with deep vein reflux for chronic venous insufficiency, but it was through a very invasive and technically difficult open surgery.
And that was the impetus for InterVene, with phenomenal support from very experienced individuals, including Dr. Krummel and Dr. Fogarty. We were initially working out of one of Dr. Fogarty’s empty spaces on Alpine Road and later were honored to formally join the Fogarty Institute, a relationship that continues to benefit InterVene via the executive’s team experience and mentorship.
Q. What do you like most about your job?
A. As the company has grown, I have had to continually adapt as a CEO, and I learn something new every day about how to best lead the team. As we enter new phases, I am constantly challenged to learn new skill sets, tap into new groups of experts and solve new types of problems. Lately, I’ve been focusing a lot of time on clinical trial design and reimbursement strategy, both areas that were not as relevant a few years ago. And of course, management, which is a talent you build over time. I’m still learning everyday from my colleagues on that one. My goal is to build a culture that prioritizes fun, while still working hard, and hitting milestones together, as a team.
Q. How did you prepare for the TCT Shark Tank competition and, in your opinion, what made your presentation stand out?
A. I feel like we had an advantage because when you run the same company for eight years, telling the story becomes second nature. But this audience was a bit different than the investment community or other thought leaders we tend to speak to, so with the help of our COO Jeff Elkins, we adapted our story for this panel, which was a long list of heavy-hitting inventors and clinicians.
My board jokingly asked we not spend more than a day on it in preparation, from a financial return on investment point of view given the high level of competition. Jeff and I “war-roomed” the presentation, and after cutting it down as much we could, we finally had a 15-minute presentation, and decided I’d just talk really fast to fit within the strict 10 minute time slot. That’s always a good idea, right? Then the morning before, with fresh coffee in my veins, I dropped a few additional slides that weren’t make-or-break, and called it final.
The quality of the presentation is important, but I think what allowed us to win this particular competition is more related to the original seed, derived from the Stanford Biodesign process…a strong clinical need. It is not uncommon for Biodesign-originated projects to win this type of competition. Furthermore, venous disease has come into the spotlight more recently, and so there are some positive external dynamics working to our advantage.
I think teams should be selective when choosing to participate in competitions like this, as they can be quite time-intensive, and I would never rely on them as a fundraising strategy. On the flip side, especially for earlier-stage companies, they can be a great mechanism to force you to put together a bullet-proof story, and they can also provide good exposure, win or lose.
And on a slightly different note, as we are talking about fundraising, I have come around somewhat on grants, which I used to have a bias against due to the long timelines and the lack of business-facing milestone structures. More recently I have seen early- and even mid-stage companies continue to benefit from supplemental grant funding, which is beneficial for a subtle reason: It loosens the time sensitivity on equity fundraises, allowing companies to avoid taking money at inopportune times out of desperation.
Q. What are the latest developments at InterVene?
A. This summer we raised a Series B, which has really helped grow the team and has united us in our goal to provide the first effective therapy for patients suffering from the painful and costly symptoms of chronic venous insufficiency (CVI) due to deep vein reflux (DVR).
We’ve also been working on rolling out our next-generation product and simultaneously getting a U.S.-based clinical trial underway. The funding has also allowed us to continue building out our team — currently we have 11 employees (and as my VP of R&D, Michi Garrison, likes to say, “We are now officially predominately female, and we aren’t going back”).
We are also focusing on developing our culture as the company grows, which has been a lot of fun. With all our momentum and growth, it’s been a really exciting time at InterVene.