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Victor Poirier, developer, financer and marketer for the first artificial heart talks to Executive MBA class

By Keith Morelli

Victor Poirier and Dean Moez Limayem

TAMPA (Jan. 6, 2017) -- You may wonder why a master of mechanical engineering who built the first artificial heart was called upon to talk to an Executive MBA class, but there's more to Victor Poirier than just that life-changing invention.

After he developed the device, he also financed and marketed it.

Poirier is an internationally recognized pioneer who developed implantable ventricular assist devices that take over the pumping function of the natural heart. He built the first working mechanical heart, solving problems that vexed other researchers, such as how to keep blood from clotting.

Among the points he stressed to the class of nearly 50 Executive MBA students in the Muma College of Business was problem solving, in both the technical field and business world. He said engineers and business people should solve problems – not symptoms.

"You break the big problem into smaller problems and then you deal with them," he said, "one at a time."

He outlined his research, which began in the 1960s, when he and others received a grant to develop a device that could take the place of the living, beating heart.

At what cost?

"Fifty years of my life," he said, "and $400 million."

The technical part involved clinical tests and years-long research projects and ultimately Federal Drug Administration approval. The financing part was a lesson in pure innovation.

That, he said, involved fancy financial footwork, creative salesmanship and master marketing.

To fully develop the device and supporting procedures and materials, Poirier needed $400 million.

"That's when I decided to get my MBA," he said. "I had no idea how to do all this."

The mechanical engineer who learned medicine by reading medical books, went back to school, earning an MBA from Northeastern University in Boston.

He learned about, applied for and received government grants for part of what he needed and he was able to market and sell some of the biomaterials he had developed along the way. He got a world-renowned cardiac surgeon to review the research and give opinions for free, in exchange for being able to use the device himself when it was ready.

Poirier, who teaches at USF's Institute for Advanced Discovery & Innovation, did the same for hospitals, which waived costs in exchange for the promise of being named premier hospitals for heart replacement surgery down the road. All that involved salesmanship, in which he offered future benefits to continue his ongoing research.

But the creative thinking didn't stop there. He used smart financial strategy to help raise capital he needed to complete the life-long project.

His company went public and that raised more money. And the stock could be leveraged to buy "cash cow" companies, creating even more revenue. More public offerings were made and, in the end, the company's stock rose from $9.50 a share to $95 a share. He had his $400 million.

"It worked out quite well for (investors)," he said, "and it worked out quite well for us."

Poirier then sold his company to St. Jude Medical for $3.7 billion, and last year, St. Jude Medical was purchased by Abbot for $25 billion.

His life represents a major accomplishment and lasting legacy. But he said he wasn't born with the ability to rise above these formidable roadblocks.

"I taught myself to be an innovator," he told the graduate students. "I'm convinced you can teach innovation, you can teach salesmanship, you can teach creativity. Some of you have these qualities more than others, but whatever you have, you can improve on it."

Editor's note: Poirier was at USF Muma College of Business' Executive MBA class as part of the regularly scheduled Distinguished Speaker Series.