Health Tech: Branislav Vajdic of HeartBeam On How Their Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall Wellness
An Interview With David Leichner
Identify the problem or opportunity for improvement that you are looking to solve.
In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Branislav Vajdic.
Branislav Vajdic, PhD, is CEO and Founder of HeartBeam, Inc. He spent the first half of his career as a chip designer with Intel Corporation, where he designed the first Flash memory and contributed two patents that transformed Flash from an idea to a product. Branislav spent the last 17 years focusing on cardiovascular devices with a vision to enable rapid, accurate heart attack detection outside of a medical setting.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
I grew up in what used to be Yugoslavia, now known as Serbia. I was an only child, and my father was a well-known surgeon. As I was approaching college age, my father was pressuring me to study medicine and follow in his footsteps. When I was sixteen years old, he insisted I observe a surgery that he was performing. The moment I saw blood, I landed on the floor…that was not a career for me! I was always fascinated with electronics. That was clearly my path. As a junior in college, I spent a summer in the United States driving a truck and selling ice cream. I returned home, but in my mind, it was clear that I wanted to return to the US. And I did. Twenty-four hours after graduating with my bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, I was on a plane to Minnesota to pursue my graduate studies. I earned a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Minnesota and went on to pursue my interest in electronics by working at Intel Corporation.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
At Intel, I was part of a small team that developed the first prototype for Flash memory. We were all very excited about the inventions we were developing. After much work, we developed a small Flash memory array. We expected that Intel upper management, at that time an innovation powerhouse, would share our excitement. Much to our surprise and disappointment, the project was quickly “put on the shelf.” We were told that market research showed the demand for Flash memory was very small, and we should focus on existing product improvements. It was hugely disappointing. The lesson I learned is that innovation is almost always met with scepticism. I have experienced it over and over in my career. But, there was a happy ending to the story of Flash memory invention — almost a year later, Andy Grove, Intel’s CEO at that time, made the decision to restart the Flash memory project. Without Flash, digital videos and photography, cell phones, and many electronics that are an integral part of our lives today would not be possible. Inertia is the biggest enemy of innovation!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There is more than one person who deserves to be mentioned, but I have to say no one deserves to be singled out more than Andy Grove, the prior leader at Intel and a legendary CEO figure of Silicon Valley. He was never my direct manager, but I knew him personally, and he has left a lasting mark on my professional path. He was a strategic thinker while maintaining a keen interest in day-to-day operations — a truly remarkable combination that made him the legend that he was. I learned many things from him: the role of discipline, how work disagreements can be useful, as they help sharpen the focus and arrive at the right decision. One of his famous sayings was, “only the paranoid survive.”
What he meant by that is that you must be super vigilant in technology and look at who is behind and approaching you. You must run and make progress as fast as you can. If I must single out the most important management skill I learned from him, it would be leadership by example. All employees respected him immensely for that. There is no good leader without trust, and trust is earned by doing exactly what you are asking others to do.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I am a risk taker. For me, there is no progress without some significant risk. Throughout my life, I have in one way or another developed new technologies. In some instances, new technologies work immediately, but in many cases, they do not. There is no progress if you do not try new things, directions, and systems. If you allow fear of failure to dominate you, the chances of your success are greatly diminished. In other words, the biggest risk is to not take risks. If you are not taking risks, you are not making progress. Risk is an integral part of progress!
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I believe my willingness to accept risk is one of the key components that have contributed to my successes. Another one is perseverance — if I believe in something, I go all the way. Again, that could be risky but can also open a path to success. A few years after I started HeartBeam, I was faced with a number of opinions by some fairly well-known cardiologists expressing that heart attack detection will never happen without a patient and a physician being in the same room, i.e., in a medical facility.
My vision was in direct conflict with these views. I did not allow these views to dissuade me, and I believe that the HeartBeam technology of today and tomorrow will prove me right. Finally, I believe that a CEO needs to be a power user of the technology their company is developing. I come across many products, many of them from well-known multibillion dollar companies, and I feel like their CEOs never use the product. That ranges from email services with terrible search functions, to health bars that you need a knife to unpack, for example. At HeartBeam, I actively use our technology and have the most recording sessions than anyone else — by a factor of three!
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the technology or medical devices that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?
At HeartBeam, we are addressing the need to determine if someone who is experiencing signs of a heart attack at home, work, or any place outside of a medical setting is actually experiencing one. It’s a huge issue. On average, most people wait over 3 hours before seeking care. Why? It is human nature to want to believe that the symptoms will go away, and that chest pain may be due to a pulled muscle or indigestion. Add to that a typically high health insurance deductible for an ER visit and at least a few hours of “lost time,” and you start to understand why the delay is so significant. That wait time means that the mortality rate goes up by some 40%! The flip side of the problem is that many people realize that heart disease is the #1 cause of death, and they rush to the ER if experiencing any chest discomfort. Chest pain is the second most common reason for an ER visit, yet 82% of those visits are unnecessary, costing the healthcare system $10B annually.
How do you think your technology can address this?
HeartBeam’s technology offers the ability to determine if chest pain or other cardiac symptoms are due to a heart attack, any time, any place. Timely intervention will save many lives. Our product in development, HeartBeam AIMIGo™, is a portable, credit card-sized device designed to be placed on the chest to take ECG recordings that are immediately transmitted to a clinician for review. This enables a clinician to determine if that patient needs to go to an ER and/or call 911, or if they can stay home and continue with their day. To make that determination, the clinician needs to have a standard-of-care 12-lead electrocardiogram (ECG), a symptom report, and patient history. The HeartBeam platform provides all of that information. Patients are offered peace of mind while clinicians are empowered to provide diagnostic help to their high-risk patients whenever it’s needed.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
My father was a very well-known physician in Europe. One Saturday afternoon, he experienced “indigestion” that he did not take seriously. Despite his deep medical knowledge, he acted as most people do: denial and procrastination. It was, unfortunately, a heart attack in progress. We lost him a couple of hours later. Many years later, and prior to our technology maturing, there was nothing that would have helped my father with his chest pain. My mission is to change that. HeartBeam is on the verge of making a hugely positive difference for high-risk patients and in general all people concerned about their cardiac health.
How do you think this might change the world?
A heart attack occurs every 40 seconds in the United States. Timely diagnosis and intervention will help save many lives and reduce wasted healthcare dollars. Above all, the value of prolonging lives and increasing quality of life for many patients is what drives me every day.
I really cannot think of any potential drawbacks of our technology if used as directed.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”?
- Identify the problem or opportunity for improvement that you are looking to solve.
- How big is that market?
- Who will pay for this technology and how? Have you done at least some basic market research?
- Do you have at least a proof of principle that your technology works?
- How much money do you need realistically to develop this technology?
Can you share a few best practices that you recommend to safeguard your technology or medical devices from hackers?
Use all standard practices in terms of safeguarding your login information, encryption, etc.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
For me, making a positive impact on many people’s lives is satisfaction that goes far beyond any financial reward. There is no success without passion — follow your passion.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Without going into his political views, the most impressive technology leader in today’s world is Elon Musk. Nobody comes close, in my mind, to his ability to make huge impacts in so many diverse areas. In addition, I am impressed with his ability to find so many excellent people to lead and work on his projects.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
We are a publicly traded company, and we frequently participate in discussions in various media. Our website is www.heartbeam.com, and you can follow our news releases under NASDAQ: BEAT.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.
About The Interviewer: David Leichner is a veteran of the Israeli high-tech industry with significant experience in the areas of cyber and security, enterprise software and communications. At Cybellum, a leading provider of Product Security Lifecycle Management, David is responsible for creating and executing the marketing strategy and managing the global marketing team that forms the foundation for Cybellum’s product and market penetration. Prior to Cybellum, David was CMO at SQream and VP Sales and Marketing at endpoint protection vendor, Cynet. David is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Jerusalem Technology College. He holds a BA in Information Systems Management and an MBA in International Business from the City University of New York.