From the early days of software development to personalized cell and gene therapies, Cathy Burzik has witnessed a lot of technological evolution over the course of her 40-year career in the healthcare industry. She sat down with DeviceTalks’ former program manager Sarah Faulkner for an interview at AdvaMed’s The MedTech Conference this year, where she received a Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to the field.
When Catherine Burzik accepted a job in 1974 at Kodak, her first assignment was to write software that would control cameras designed to keep tabs on Russia.
“This is way before software was even a field – you didn’t go to school for software engineering, but they were looking for people with critical thinking skills. I got to write the software that controlled the cameras, so I had to learn how to write assembler-level language software,” Burzik explained. “When I think about it, it was pretty fascinating to be on the start of a field.”
Years later, she was asked to join a secret project writing software for the very first clinical chemistry instrument.
“That’s what changed everything for me,” she said.
It was the beginning of Burzik’s wide-ranging 40-year career in healthcare. She went on to oversee the vital sign monitor franchise at Johnson & Johnson, as well as that company’s clinical lab and transfusion markets. She is perhaps most well-known for her stint as president & CEO of Kinetic Concepts. Under her leadership, the company inked a $1.7 billion deal to purchase tissue repair company LifeCell. Eventually, KCI was picked up for $6.1 billion by private equity firm Apax Partners.
Now, after working as a general partner at a venture capital firm, she serves on the board of several companies (large and small), helping to guide organizations through the changes that she sees emerging in healthcare.
An evolving industry
A lot has changed since Burzik wrote the software for the industry’s first clinical chemistry analyzer. Digitization has ushered in a new era of therapeutic technology, changing the way doctors provide care for their patients.
“I had the opportunity to work with X-ray film and turn the film into digital images and beam the images remotely. Today, you see all kinds of doctors and radiologists reviewing images and you hardly ever see film. They’re doing it on screens, so you can manipulate the images. You’re not just stuck with the way it was taken,” she said.
Burzik also noted that the goal of personalized healthcare has advanced significantly over the course of her career.
“The last crown I needed for my tooth, they 3D-printed it while I was sitting in the chair,” she said.
While technology has evolved dramatically in the last three decades, regulatory bodies and payers are still working to catch up, Burzik noted, but she pointed to cell therapy as a space where regulators have enabled growth.
“I think for a while the FDA was not being as proactive as we would have liked in the gene and cell therapy market. That has all changed. They now have accelerated programs that we’re able to utilize,” she explained.
“I’m very worried right now — and I think the whole industry is — about all the changes that are going on in Europe. I think there’s a case where the number of notified bodies, the infrastructure there is not ready to do what they would like to do. I hope that clearer minds will prevail so that we don’t get into a situation. The biggest fear is that the industry is not going to be able to get their technology re-approved in time to keep it on the market,” Burzik added.
Moving mountains takes a team
Burzik’s insights extend far beyond her analysis of the technical aspects of the field. She has served in leadership roles within multiple healthcare companies for decades and learned crucial lessons during that time.
Early on, Burzik said, she had to learn that “you can’t move a mountain all by yourself.” It takes a team of diverse and thoughtful people to accomplish anything meaningful in this industry, she said. Going beyond a company’s immediate management team, she extended this idea to the board of directors.
“I think back to my Kodak days. I wasn’t ever far enough along at Kodak to interact with the board, but Kodak had 120,000 people that now is nothing because the company missed the shift to digital technology. I hold the board of directors 100% accountable,” Burzik said. “When I look back at my own leadership, if you can get in a position where you have both a strong team of people working for you and a strong group of supporters at the board level, you’re set up for success. If one of those two isn’t good, you’re not going to make it.”
Other leadership lessons came from a less traditional source — ballroom dancing.
Burzik and her husband — they met when they were just 15 years old — have always loved to dance. Fifteen years ago, when the pair were dancing at the Rainbow Room in New York City, they decided they needed to expand their portfolio beyond simply foxtrots and waltzes.
“They came out with chas-chas and Rumbas and swing and salsas and all of these things. We said to each other, ‘We don’t know how to do this!’”
They enrolled themselves in lessons and those few lessons turned into an all-out passion. Now, they train for hours every week and travel around the country to compete multiple times per year.
“At KCI, when I started dancing, it was a leveler with the CEO and I think it helped me to be a three-dimensional person. I used to go on the elevator — KCI was 15 stories high — and people wouldn’t say anything to me. Once I started dancing and I would talk about it in town hall meetings, people would ask me ‘What dances are you doing? Do you have a new gown?’ and always, ‘What do you think of Dancing With The Stars?’”
And, she said, the benefits of ballroom dancing translate directly to the boardroom, especially as it relates to communication between leaders.
“Being able to sense in a second what somebody is trying to communicate to you — I think that level of intimacy and understanding was improved by ballroom dancing,” she said.
“I worked really, really hard for many years and once I started ballroom dancing, I still worked hard, but I think I was a better person. In some ways maybe I worked more efficiently,” she added. “I get that not everybody wants to dance, but I tell people, ‘Go find a passion outside your job.’ A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I’m raising my kids.’ I say, ‘That’s good. Raise your kids, get involved with their sports, but do something.’”