Sitting Down With… Michael Mrochen, Founder of IROC Science, serial entrepreneur: Co-founder of Vivior AG, Allotex Inc, Overture Ltd, IROC Innocross (Exit) AG, ClearSight Innovation Ltd (Exit)
Aleksandra Jones | | 7 min read | Interview
What first attracted you to ophthalmology?
My training was in physics: optics and lasers, and in 1992, I started working for a company that is now Carl Zeiss Meditec, in the laser development department – it was one of the first companies producing lasers for ophthalmology. The first laser I built was for posterior capsulotomy. In the mid-90s, I began working with Theo Seiler at the Carl Gustav Carus University Hospital of the University of Technology of Dresden, Germany, and I got really attracted to the combination of clinical practice – helping patients – and designing, building, and using new technological innovations. The eye itself fascinates me as an optical instrument. I got hooked and have been working in ophthalmology for more than 25 years.
Who were your role models when you were growing up?
My father was a very creative person. He knew a lot about mechanics, engineering, and how things work, despite not having a formal engineering background. He was always creating new things, which I found very inspiring. The rest of my family were bankers, so my role models were a mixture of creativity and thinking about money!
Have you ever imagined a different career for yourself?
I certainly considered working in different medical disciplines, such as neurology and dermatology, but I realized that the innovation cycle in ophthalmology is quick compared with those in many other fields, and that the working relationships of innovators and ophthalmologists are very close.
When did you know you chose the right path for yourself?
In the mid-1990s, when I worked on laser refractive surgery, and for the first time I was involved in bringing a product from the lab to patients in clinical trials, and then to market – that was that moment. I really felt like I could be involved in creating innovations with global impact. I experienced this again with corneal cross-linking for keratoconus, when we took it from the lab in Dresden to commercial production in 2005, and approvals around the world. Selling my cross-linking business to Avedro finally allowed US approval and global reach. Progressing a project from an initial idea to having an impact on so many patients’ outcomes gives me a lot of joy, and is a huge source of motivation for me.
Have you seen first-hand what difference your work has made to patients?
When I worked with Theo Seiler, he made sure I had a chance to interact directly with patients – which is quite unusual for an engineer – and I really appreciated it. I was at a very early stage of my PhD thesis and most of my time was spent building lasers, but I had the opportunity to come to the OR or sit behind the slit lamp, interacting with patients, hearing about their issues and outcomes, and recognizing how certain ophthalmic treatments can be life changing. Then, at the beginning of 2000s, I traveled a lot to different eye centers in South America, the US, Asia, Africa, and Europe, and every one of them had a laser that I had helped to develop. I could see first-hand how many patients were treated using those lasers, and I realized that my work had an impact on millions of people every year.
Corneal cross-linking helps a lot of young people, and seeing that their vision is preserved at an early stage of their life is a huge deal for me, and can feel quite emotional.
How do you find the right balance between professional and personal aspects of your life?
When you’re involved in early-stage technologies, they become a huge part of your life, so finding the right balance between career and personal life can be very challenging – and the pendulum can swing a bit too much each way at times. Lately, I have found the concept of personal agility useful. I set myself clear personal and business priorities, which help me make better choices when I have many different things fighting for my time. I wish I had used this concept earlier in my life to make better decisions, but I’ve had to learn this over the years. I have to choose the right things for myself first, as I have learned that if I’m not happy, I’m not going to make other people happy.
And what gets you out of bed in the morning these days?
Coffee! And – of course – the joy of seeing my projects become successful. I have started a couple of new projects that I have big hopes for: I’ve been working intensely in the field of presbyopia, designing a new solution for Digital Eye Strain with Vivior, and developing a new investment structure for early-stage technology through tokenization of innovation with Overture.
Are there any parts of your work that you dislike?
I have to say: administration. It’s a necessary evil, and I appreciate its importance – I just don’t like it! Managing it as I go rather than leaving it all for later is the key. I have learned – and sometimes those lessons were hard and expensive – that administrative tasks always catch up with my projects. Finding people who help with this is vital, and I wish I’d figured this out earlier!
How important are interactions with other people to you?
Having a network of people around me who help me answer questions and challenge me has been crucial for my success. I’ve been involved with some great societies, such as the Refractive Surgery Alliance, the American-European Congress of Ophthalmic Surgery (AECOS), meeting a new generation of specialists. I love seeing their passion, new takes on various topics, and collaboration. I am convinced that we have extremely talented people coming into ophthalmology now, ready to take the field to the next level. Opening pathways for these people and helping them succeed is now the job of my generation, just as the previous generation of experts opened the doors for us. I see it as my future challenge.
Do you have any messages for these younger people following in your footsteps?
If the “old boys” tell you your idea is not going to work, don’t let it stop you, but listen carefully and understand their arguments, and use them as challenges to overcome – don’t ignore them. When we launched corneal cross-linking, pretty much the whole ophthalmic field was against the idea. We could’ve stopped, but kept going, using the experts’ experience and knowledge to my advantage.
Also, remember that these days you can’t do things alone. In the past, it was possible to be a solitary entrepreneur, but the complexity of innovation today means that you need to find people who believe in your idea early on. In that sense it’s more difficult than it was 20+ years ago, but there is also much more organized support for young ophthalmologists and those interested in innovation in ophthalmology – it’s such an exciting field with huge opportunities.
What impact has the pandemic had on your life and work?
It has been very different from the personal and business perspectives. On a personal level, I enjoyed the time I got to spend with my then girlfriend in lockdowns in our small apartment in Istanbul – and we got married this year. The quiet time we spent together still brings a smile to my face. It was very different on the professional side as my companies struggled a lot. Investor rounds fell apart and customers weren’t interested in seeing new products – they just wanted to go back to the way things were. The pandemic has had a huge impact on my two start-ups – their teams and financial results. We are still working hard to overcome the negative effects of the past two years. This experience has made me question whether I’m really spending my time on the right things, and whether I still believe in these projects. The answers have given me the passion to share with those around me. Both companies are now looking much stronger, but it has cost me many sleepless nights. It has taught me the importance of being agile, flexible, adaptive, and brave enough to try new solutions when old ones aren’t working anymore. However, it is the team that makes it happen.
Do you have any free time to pursue your interests?
I love skiing and riding motorcycles, and I share these passions with my wife, so we make sure to find time for these activities, but it is usually well planned, not spontaneous. Last year, I spent a week motorcycling in Sardinia with friends. I also enjoy spending time with my grandsons, and my children.