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Business & Profession Health Economics and Policy, Business and Innovation

The Mercy of The Markets

Let me set the scene. It’s October 13, 2016. I’m in the Hyatt Regency Chicago’s underground ballroom attending OIS@AAO. I’m coming down with the ‘flu, the jetlag’s kicking in, the fourth coffee of the morning is wearing off and I’m doing my best to live-tweet and follow everything that’s being presented on stage. Up walks SightLife’s CEO, Monty Montoya. Here’s the top executive of a non-profit health organization that I had a vague recollection of being one of the world’s big corneal tissue banks. But he was using phrases like “innovating at the speed of need” and seemed to be talking about Bill Link, Flying L Partners, Series A financing, and expanding the corneal innovation space. To my bug-befuddled brain, it seemed incongruous. I wrote a note to myself to follow up with Monty at some point during the AAO congress and find out what exactly he was talking about.

Fast forward a few days later. I managed to meet Monty at SightLife’s booth. When he told me what SightLife was up to: I got it. It opened my eyes to how philanthropy has to operate in the 21st century to even have a chance of achieving anything big. SightLife had taken a chunk of its non-profit business and moved it into a for-profit company: SightLife Surgical (SLS). SightLife (the non-profit arm) became a majority equity holder in SLS. SLS went off to the capital market to find investors willing to give capital to accelerate its growth. Eventually SLS will undergo an IPO, and SightLife will (hopefully) be significantly better off – Monty’s goal is to make a minimum of $200 million from the whole enterprise.

I wondered: how were they going to achieve that kind of exit? By placing their bets on the roulette wheel of eyecare innovation investment – with an added twist. They have a goal of eliminating corneal blindness by 2040. By their own calculations, at the current cornea therapy innovation rate, it’ll take more than 14 years to achieve that – more like another 250. But they will direct all of their investment at promoting corneal research and innovation, with the hope that will be the catalyst that drives the entire field forwards at a far faster rate. Sure, there’s risk (some of which will be borne by the market), but they have great advisors (like Dick Lindstrom and Bill Link) on which bets to make. If there’s a gambling analogy to be made here, they’ve stacked the cards in their favor as best they can.

The more I think about it, the more I think it’s a genius approach. The world is highly marketized. SLS is playing the game. How can it not?

Mark Hillen

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About the Author
Mark Hillen

I spent seven years as a medical writer, writing primary and review manuscripts, congress presentations and marketing materials for numerous – and mostly German – pharmaceutical companies. Prior to my adventures in medical communications, I was a Wellcome Trust PhD student at the University of Edinburgh.

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