Always for the Greater Good
Sitting Down With… Monty Montoya, CEO of SightLife Surgical
Monty Montoya |
What got you into the world of eye banking?
In college, my wife and I decided we needed jobs, and she found an eye recovery technician job for me at the Arizona Lions Eye Bank. I interviewed for it the day before our wedding, and came back from honeymoon to find out that I had got it. I spent the final year of my course recovering corneas and preparing them for transplant. I actually ended up working there for a couple of years before leaving to help set up an eye bank at the Donor Network of Arizona.
How did you find yourself at SightLife?
In 1997, whilst Director of Eye Bank Operations for the Donor Network of Arizona, I had the opportunity to join the Northwest Lions Eyebank, which was serving Washington, Northern Idaho and Alaska. (There’s a backstory here: my wife is from Seattle, and my very crafty mother-in-law always managed to introduce me to people in Seattle to ensure that I was receiving a fairly regular stream of job offers!)
It was quite a challenging experience in the beginning. The organization was in very bad financial shape – within a couple of weeks of working there I was asked if I could wait to receive my paycheck as they didn’t have the cash! That was when I began to appreciate the importance of running non-profit organizations like a business – if we really tapped into the best business and management techniques, then we could stay in business as well as help a lot more people. When I joined in 1997, we were responsible for about 700–800 corneas a year. By applying business tactics, we were providing over 2,000 corneas a year in 2000, and had become the number one provider of corneas for transplant in the US – and the world.
What inspired SightLife Surgical?
In 2014, we decided to test our mission of eliminating corneal blindness by 2040. An outside group revealed we were working at a 250-year pace! It was a punch to the gut. But it ultimately led to the creation of SightLife Surgical. I realized that as a non-profit organization, we would never be able to generate the financial or human resources to reach our goal. But if we tapped into investment resources that could drive innovation, we could use the profit to drive education and provide more access to sight-restoring treatments. I have made the transition from being a non-profit guy all my life to being the CEO for a for-profit company.
How has that transition been?
Very interesting! Although quite sad in a way, as I have learned that many people in the non-profit academic world see themselves as ‘holier than thou’ and look down on people in industry or the commercial space. But blending academia, non-profits, for-profits and government is really what is going to drive solutions. If we all stay divided in our silos, we won’t be able to deliver the full benefit of what we could by working together. With SightLife Surgical, we are doing things that have never been done before. We’ve been able to advance Shigeru Kinoshita’s work on injectable endothelial cells, and we have the resources to get it through the regulatory hurdles; we couldn’t have done this as a non-profit. I wish I had appreciated much earlier in my career the impact that partnering with the commercial sector could have – we might have been 10 or 15 years further on.
I remember being in China in 2000 with eight corneas – and 150 patients showed up. It was overwhelming, and made me realize how much more we had to do. Such situations are always challenging.
Right now, I find it hard when long-time friends and colleagues become very critical; I have even been ‘un-friended’ by some people in the eye banking world. Why? Because we stepped into an arena where we can gain investment to drive innovation. Some people see it as an indication that I am personally not committed to the mission – like I have gone to the ‘dark side.’ But that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s about accepting the harsh reality.
What are the highs of your career?
One high point is feeling incredibly blessed to be in a position to really effect change in global health. Another high point was in 2014, when SightLife was recognized with the Entrepreneur Award by Ernst and Young. It was a huge validation of what we’ve been doing.
I would have to say that the unsung hero in all of this is my wife. I have done all this stuff, and it has been a huge commitment of time and energy, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it without her support.