Q&A with Mike Mussallem, Chairman and CEO of Edwards Lifesciences

Edwards Lifesciences’ first and only chairman and CEO, Mike Mussallem, is the leading force behind the company’s success and committed culture of giving back to global communities.

Widely recognized as being at the forefront of patient-focused medical innovations for structural heart disease and critical care monitoring, the company has seen its value jump 4,000 percent and employment double to more than 13,000 in the past 18 years, with its live-saving innovations now sold in approximately 100 countries. In recognition of these achievements, Mike was recently named to the Harvard Business Review’s list of world’s best-performing CEOs for the fifth time in six years, ranking 12th out of 881 chiefs.

Mike has not only led the development and successful implementation of the company’s patient-focused innovation strategy, but also established Edwards’ commitment to philanthropy and corporate social responsibility. Over the last 13 years, Edwards Lifesciences Foundation has supported communities and causes around the world, with more than $60 million in charitable giving and volunteerism.

Its philanthropic programs includes the “Every Heart Beat Matters” initiative, which was launched in 2014 with the goal to impact the global burden of heart valve disease by supporting the education, screening and treatment of one million underserved people by 2020. By partnering with over 60 cardiac- and patient-focused nonprofits, that goal was achieved early, and the company is now reaching for 1.5 million by 2020.

During Mike’s tenure, Edwards was recognized among the World’s Most Ethical Companies by the Ethisphere Institute, an organization that defines and advances standards of ethical business practices. He himself has received numerous recognitions and honors, including admittance in the Forum for Corporate Directors Hall of Fame; the UC Irvine Medal; a lifetime achievement award from The Phoenix Conference; and the Wenger Award for Excellence in Corporate Leadership, given by WomenHeart.

Edwards holds a special place in our hearts as it was the first company with whom Dr. Fogarty partnered to manufacture and market the balloon catheter. Since then, 16 million patients have been treated with the Fogarty catheter, which remains the gold standard.

We had the privilege of catching up with Mike to learn more about his career, his work at Edwards and trends in the industry.

Q. Can you tell us how you got started in the healthcare field and the medtech industry in particular? 

A. After I graduated from college with a degree in chemical engineering, I began working in a job making antifreeze. My focus at that early age was on making a paycheck and not a whole lot else! I soon realized that the job wasn’t really what I had envisioned for my career in engineering; I wanted to be on the cutting edge of things, I wanted to be part of discovery and develop something new. I also realized that having meaning and purpose in my career was important both personally and professionally.

Even though I did not have a background in healthcare either through my education or certainly not in the early stage of my career, I took a chance and took on a role within the industry. I joined Baxter in 1979, working in engineering and product development and then general management, across a number of divisions.

In 2000, I was fortunate to lead a team from the cardiovascular division of Baxter to spin out an independent company. We became Edwards Lifesciences, listed on the New York Stock Exchange and dedicated ourselves to focusing on helping patients fighting cardiovascular disease and critical illness. This year I celebrate 40 years of this journey with Baxter and now Edwards.

Q. What are you most excited about that Edwards is working on right now?

A. We have a lot of momentum all around the company, and continue to be significant investors in research and development. While we know that not all of our programs underway will ultimately become products used in the regular care of patients, we are committed to exploring numerous therapies in structural heart disease and critical care medicine to enable more advanced care, and also understand that even in programs that are ultimately discontinued, we will learn a lot.

In particular, I’m excited about the multiple programs underway in the area of transcatheter treatments for mitral and tricuspid disease. There are immense patient needs in this area, and providing transcatheter repair or replacement therapies for these patients could have a significant impact on patient care.

In our surgical business, we have therapies designed to treat younger, more active patients, which enables people to have the benefits of a tissue heart valve, with the opportunity that the tissue and valve could be engineered for a longer therapeutic solution.

Within critical care, we are designing technologies to serve the hospital of the future, and incorporating machine learning and predictive analytics to move from telling clinicians what is happening with their patients now, to instead alerting them to future events that could impact their health.

And in transcatheter aortic valve replacement, we recently gained FDA approval for the treatment of all patients diagnosed with severe aortic stenosis to be considered for TAVR based on their individual needs and anatomical considerations versus traditional risk scoring. This provides an opportunity for patients with severe aortic stenosis to have an informed discussion with their Heart Team about which kind of heart valve therapy is best for them — transcatheter or surgical — and receive treatment in the way that best suits them.

We’re seeing a paradigm shift in patient treatment across structural heart disease and critical care, and it is exciting to be on the leading edge. 

Q. You have been honored with several management-related awards, such as being named to the Harvard Business Review’s list of world’s best-performing CEOs and cited as one of “7 Companies That Do Everything Well.” What advice do you have for developing a strong company culture?

A. I truly believe that culture eats strategy for breakfast, as they say. While of course it’s important that companies have a focused strategy and identify their roadmap for the next several years, I believe that none of that matters if you don’t have the right people and culture to implement it and make it successful.

At Edwards, we focus on patients first. They are our North Star. When we have decisions to make, or we come to a critical juncture or challenge in one of our programs, we stop to think about how it would impact the patient based on different paths we take. We work to reinforce this focus regularly with our team through storytelling, videos, visits from patients who have benefitted from our therapies and recognition of employees who embody the cultural traits we celebrate at Edwards. We recognize that our work is very personal — that it impacts people individually — and we ensure that all our employees around the world understand this privilege and responsibility and take inspiration from it.

Q. Your company is known for its patient-focused strategy. How does that vision impact your day-to-day work and the types of initiatives you choose to pursue?

A. The patient-focused strategy enables us to have great clarity on our priorities, both from a development and investment standpoint. We know that we are pursuing breakthrough therapies to address unmet needs in structural heart disease and critical care medicine, so this affords us the opportunity to be selective in what we go after both internally and externally. Obviously if someone comes to us with a great solution for something related to orthopedics or cancer, we can recognize that it is an admirable and important effort, but because our expertise is laser-focused in a few distinct areas of medicine, we won’t pursue that.

In the past, we have stepped out slightly to areas outside of our focus, and we found that we could not be as impactful. Edwards is focused on going after bold goals in aiming to change the practice of medicine, and to do this, we must stay focused in our strategy, maintain leadership in the areas where we focus and pioneer breakthrough therapies with superior evidence. If we do this right, we’ll create meaningful solutions for patients that transform care.

Q. Corporate philanthropy is obviously very important to you and the company. Can you tell us more about your efforts, maybe in particular why you launched the “Every Heart Beat Matters” program?  

A. Edwards has been engaged in a significant way in global corporate giving since the establishment of the company, and it is a very important part of who we are. We have an aspiration that 100 percent of our employees around the world will participate in some type of giving or service activity each year, and we have a vast majority of employees who do.

But we saw that while our corporate giving was making a difference, particularly in the local communities where we live and work, we thought that we could have an even bigger impact if we brought together partners all around the healthcare ecosystem and dedicated, passionate nonprofits. In 2014, we committed our philanthropy to impact the global burden of heart valve disease by supporting the education, screening and treatment of one million underserved people by 2020. In 2018, something amazing happened – our partners achieved our goal early. Now, we are reaching for 1.5 million by 2020.

By partnering with over 60 cardiac- and patient-focused non-profit organizations, we’ve been able to impact the global burden of heart valve disease by educating, screening and treating over one million underserved people in over 35 countries. It is truly a remarkable effort, one that gives me a lot of enthusiasm and inspiration personally, and I’m proud of the work of our team and our partners who are dedicated to helping people all around the world who are impacted by heart valve disease.

Q. What are some trends you are seeing, whether in your company specifically and/or the industry in general?

A. The trends I see across healthcare are around consolidation – whether you look at hospital systems, insurance companies or medtech/pharmaceutical companies – and diversification, whether from a business focus or geographic standpoint. The big are getting bigger, with the goal of using scale and size to ultimately be more efficient and have a lot of opportunities underway to insulate against significant impacts from any failed efforts.

Clearly these are not trends that Edwards participates in, since our approach is centered on patient-focused innovation in the areas of structural heart disease and critical care medicine. We believe that we can make the most significant impacts on patient care by staying focused in the areas we know well. And while we are growing — and certainly our geographic reach is broad — we seek to grow organically, and keep our innovation in-house as much as possible, waiting for very strategic opportunities to bring technology or people in from the outside.

Of course, the other broad trend in healthcare is around the role of technology, such as artificial intelligence or machine learning, and I think this holds great promise for enhancing the capabilities of clinicians and enabling the delivery of high-quality care. We are utilizing it in several areas, including in enhancing heart valve disease detection and diagnosis, and within our critical care technologies to alert clinicians to dangerous events like low blood pressure before they occur in a patient. It is a very exciting and stimulating time to be working in healthcare.

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