“How You Respond To Failure Will Determine The Level Of Success You Achieve” with Jeff Bell, Founder of Sterilis Medical
“The pathogens medical wastes contain have never been nastier and potentially more harmful. By reducing this waste, we hope to help make the world a less dangerous place.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Bell, CFO and founder of Sterilis Medical, a company who has designed, patented and brought to market the first transportable solution to treat and remediate highly infectious medical waste on-site and at the point of care.
What is your “Backstory?”
My career didn’t take off exactly as I had originally scripted. I grew up in Australia and in my junior year of high school I got great grades. However, then came senior year and with it came lots of distractions and a distinct lack of application on my part. I barely made it through that year and didn’t get the grades I needed to get into an accounting course at university, which had always been my plan. I had let myself down, and I had let my parents down.
I was just 17 years old, and having graduated with no concrete plans, I found myself knocking on many doors trying to get an accounting job. I finally got a break with a small, boutique accounting firm as a trainee accountant. There was no way I was going to let that opportunity slip by me — but I knew that it would require lots of work on my part. I was never afraid of hard work; my father owned his own medical device business as I was growing up and I had seen how much commitment was required to be successful. I made the most of my trainee accountant opportunity and I am grateful that it helped get me on my path.
A year later, I re-applied to university and was accepted to take the course at night school. My job was occupying well over 40 hours per week and for the next six years, apart from getting married, school and work became my life. I was determined to do what it took to succeed in the field.
When I graduated and was preparing to start my post-graduate qualifications, my first daughter was born. By the time I was finished with these qualifications, which was a couple of years later, I had become a fully qualified member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia, I had two daughters under the age of two and I was a senior member of the accounting practice where I had started, which was growing rapidly.
After 11 years in the accounting field, I needed a change and decided to use my talents in the corporate world. I joined a medical device company that was a client of the accounting firm as their CFO/COO. This felt a little bit like going home, as I had exposure to the medical device industry through my father’s business. During the 11 years I was with that company, we took it public on the Australian Stock Exchange, in-licensed or acquired several medical device and immunotherapeutic technologies, sold off various technologies, as well as listed it as a subsidiary on the London Stock Exchange. Needless to say, I got great experience working in many different countries and cultures.
When I was 32, my family was offered the opportunity to move to Boston through the medical device company, which we took, and which we saw as the beginning of our next adventure.
Being involved in the medical device industry, you can’t avoid becoming educated about the horrors of healthcare acquired infections (HAIs). Tragically, three of my grandparents ended up in the hospital during this time and each of them acquired infections during treatment that contributed to their deaths.
As my time with the medical device company wound down, I began researching HAI’s and discovered how harmful the disposal of regulated medical waste (RMW) is to our environment — not to mention the hazards presented to patients and hospital workers. Out of this due diligence and the need to understand more, my present company, Sterilis, was born. For the next 18 months I immersed myself in the business models and intellectual property positions of all the industry players, including existing and developmental technologies applicable to the space. From this I drew up a business plan, established that there was freedom to operate from an IP perspective and engaged a product development firm to prove that we could sterilize RMW with steam.
Having achieved proof of concept, Sterilis began developing its product: an innovative device that challenges the increasingly expensive and dangerous decades old method of removing medical waste by trucks and hauling it to be incinerated. After four years of operating in stealth mode, we officially launched our, our product and our first real sales efforts in the first quarter of 2017.
What does your company do?
Sterilis makes the world a less dangerous place. We have designed, patented and brought to market the first transportable solution to treat and remediate highly infectious medical waste (needles, syringes, bandages, surgical gloves, etc.) on-site and at the point of care. We’re providing healthcare and public health facilities including needle exchange centers, acute care clinics, etc. with an alternative that significantly reduces the risk, liability and operational costs of medical waste disposal, while significantly improving patient and worker safety. Our system can cut regulated RMW volume by up to 80 percent and reduce toxic air pollution and carbon emissions.
Sterilis’ system is unlike any other available today. It combines a steam sterilizer with a grinder, allowing RMW to be treated, turned into harmless confetti and disposed of in regular trash in about an hour. The systems require no plumbing, use standard electricity and are easy to use by medical personnel. For some customers, Sterilis creates a zero-waste stream by allowing them to resell the residual medical waste for repurposing into plastics, particle board and other materials.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We do well by doing good in the cities, regions, communities and neighborhoods where our systems are in use. To date, about 100 customers use the Sterilis device, including hospitals, community needle-drop centers, surgery centers, dermatology and ophthalmology practices, health clinics, prisons, clinical labs, airports and nursing homes. Our systems are in use or are about to be deployed in a rather diverse set of locations where opioid addiction and diabetes have reached crisis stage. These range from affluent suburbs like Sandwich on Cape Cod, Mass. to big cities like Dallas to Harlem and suburban Pittsburgh, as well as rural West Virginia and upstate New York. Little by little, we are doing our part to help these communities take a more environmentally-sound approach to waste remediation, thereby reducing the risk of the spread of infectious disease to needle users, as well as healthcare professionals.
Nationally and globally, the environmental dangers associated with traditional RMW removal are escalating. America’s healthcare systems now produce more than 2.4 million tons of medical waste annually — resulting in more greenhouse gases produced via medical waste incineration than the entire UK. The pathogens medical wastes contain have never been nastier and potentially more harmful. By reducing this waste, we hope to help make the world a less dangerous place.
Which person or people do you admire most?
My Father — My dad was amazing. His path followed Steve Jobs on a very small scale. He built his medical device business in a very smart and pragmatic way initially. However, he then tried to expand it nationally and internationally and unfortunately, his business was not recession proof and he lost the business in the latter half of the 1980’s. Undaunted, he started again from scratch in a new business and an entirely new industry. He was quite successful in this venture, which he ultimately sold, allowing him to retire comfortably.
Steve Jobs — I know this might seem like a popular answer to this question, but Jobs truly was a visionary and one of a kind. The trials and tribulations and highs and lows he endured through Apple V1 then his departure and Apple V2 were arguably unlike any other tech entrepreneur of his time — and perhaps in all modern-day corporations. What Jobs did over a protracted period of time required incredible strength of character, vision and commitment.
Ex-Australian Prime Minister Mr. John Howard — Howard’s accomplishments while Prime Minster of Australia are likely less known to most people in Europe or North America, but they are quite impressive. Through his steady leadership and some rather tough decision-making, Mr. Howard revived a decimated Australian economy from deep recession at the end of the 1980’s and subsequently re-built that economy. As a result, he became Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister.
Five things I wished someone had told me before I launched my start up
- Don’t fight, just win — it is critical to believe in your vision and work with a passion to make it a reality. There will always be naysayers who question your motives, your logic, your decision making. If I had listened to the negativity when all I had for my vision of Sterilis and fundamentally changing medical waste remediation was a sketch on a piece of paper, I never would have made it past the first year. It is critical to surround yourself with passionate people who share your vision, work ethic and drive.
- How you respond to failure will determine the level of success you achieve — or said another way “When you’re going through hell, don’t stop, just keep going until you get to the other side.” During the development process of Sterilis, we knew that the success of the system hinged on the reliability of the grinder. We spent a lot more time and research and development money on proof-of-concept for the grinder, and had to overcome repeated failures before we struck gold. To date, we have never had a grinder fail in the field, so it was money, time and effort that was well spent.
- Never underestimate the true value of a team — In a team setting, I believe that 2+2=6. By that I mean that when professionals are working in collaboration with a common goal in mind, great things can happen. I am constantly amazed by the talented and dedicated people we have working for us at Sterilis. Individually they are all brilliant, but together we are able to move mountains.
- As a good leader, trust your people / teams and give them the freedom to succeed — early in the Sterilis beta phase, we were challenged with offensive odor emanating from the system when we were treating loads with high volumes of bodily fluids. The team came together, accepted the challenge, and had a solution tested and released to the field within two weeks. It became a non-issue for customers and this was a major hurdle we overcame.
- Culture creates productivity — in any organization, culture is critical, but a culture cannot be magically created or changed. I think it all starts with a seemingly basic but important premise that you should never forget to treat people how you want to be treated.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
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