Career Profile: Patricia Eisenhardt, AB'93

Alumna finds her niche in medical technology innovation and startups

Patricia Eisenhardt, AB’93, spent the first part of her career as a high school teacher working in New York City with students that struggled in traditional school settings. When asked what drew her to education, Patricia cited her experience at the University of Chicago as well as time spent living in Hyde Park; while a student, she was aware of local concerns regarding the environment and saw research at the University and beyond as a vast, untapped resource that could help people make informed decisions for their health and community. Through this experience Patricia said she developed a “passion for translation” of the knowledge at the University so that it could benefit society at large. Not only did this interest drive her desire to go into science teaching initially so that she could help students apply the scientific process to their lives, but the concept of improving everyday lives continues to motivate Patricia’s work in medical product innovation.

After a move to Ohio prompted Patricia to rethink her career in education, she found a position with an organization that helps inventors start their own life science companies. At the time, the group was looking for an associate to lead focus groups and educational sessions; however, once her science training became apparent, her role expanded so that she was helping analyze investment opportunities. Since this initial role, Patricia has spent the last 19 years working in medical product innovation: “I just followed the path of little successes,” she said. For some of this time she has served as a founder or consultant in the startup world, and during other times in her career she has been as a leader of innovation programs for community healthcare systems. “It’s been an interesting ride because I’ve seen two different sides of the business: the running the institutional program and also living in the company that’s trying to move a platform forward,” Patricia said.

Currently the Director of Corporate Development with Flex Partners, “a medical device design and development company serving established companies and new venture start-ups,” Patricia took on this role with a desire to return to startups. In her position with Flex Partners she fills a critical gap between inventors, manufacturers, and the healthcare providers who may wish to implement the new products. Patricia reviews projects pitched to Flex Partners, analyzes the economic incentives that would drive product sales, and evaluates whether anyone would purchase the products. She also sets up company operations, prepares the first business plan, and fosters their first partnerships.

When asked if her training in Biology at the University of Chicago has helped her understand the science behind these products, Patricia said, “it’s one thing to be knowledgeable. It’s quite another to know how to act on new information that comes hurtling at you.” For her, it was “so much more than science at Chicago. UC has established culture of ‘swinging at the fences’ that teaches innovation in a deep way.”

At Flex Partners, Patricia often finds herself working with the very individuals--doctors, nurses, technicians--who will use the product once it goes to market, as inventors are often representative of customers. Patricia provided the following example: a doctor or nurse is frustrated by some aspect of their work. They say to themselves, “there must be better way to do this.” When they wake up in the middle of the night with an idea that might solve their issue, they come to Patricia and her colleagues at Flex Partners for help moving forward. Patricia has seen many products that might be valuable, but vendors often directly approach hospitals with an item only to have it turned down. “No one bothered to ask what is going to drive this purchase,” Patricia said. Her team comes in to strategize for the adoption of the product, bringing together the key components such as the business opportunity, clinical impact, and financial implications.

Considering recent trends in innovation, Patricia noted that “fairly basic things” like changes to the design of IV poles are commonly of interest. “There are so many different areas for improvement, and they don’t all have to be super high tech. There’s a lot of value in the simple things that make a difference in everyday life,” she said. An additional industry trend is big data analytics. Patricia explained that doctors and nurses are tasked with processing a large amount and wide variety of medical information in order to diagnose and treat patients appropriately, but that they are under-supported in making sense of it. For example, “what does it mean if a patient has a stomach ache at this time and a headache at that time and they carry this biomarker and they had this combination of microbes in their gut?” The data analysis tools designed now attempt to consider all of these medical clues and help to interpret what they mean. In turn, doctors and nurses can determine a meaningful diagnosis and, by extension, outline a treatment plan for their patients.

Though seasoned in the medical innovation field, Patricia often finds herself faced with a diverse set of individuals that are involved in the development of a new product. Pointing out that the bulk of her conversations with inventors are technical in nature, she said that it is also crucial to attempt to understand what is happening with someone emotionally and what an individual needs to feel good about a working relationship. Patricia feels this is especially true in the high pressure environment of innovation, where an inventor might have staked a large portion of their financial resources or personal time on developing their idea. She tries to make meaningful connections by reflecting concerns, showing compassion, and also simply listening. “By doing these things, you’re telling someone that you care about them,” she said.

Having an opportunity to work with a wide variety of people in the context of medical innovation has demonstrated to Patricia just how highly she values collaborating with colleagues who place top priority on the mission of their work: in this case, improving patient care and quality of life. Her advice to students and recent graduates looking to pursue a career in startups is to get familiar with what is important to them and stay true to that instinct. “Look closely at the personalities involved; the strength of your relationship and your ability to communicate with the people leading the project. Make sure that, in your gut, you feel good,” Patricia advised. Additionally, she said, “I can’t emphasize the value of mentors enough. They made me who I am today.”