James Mazzo has put 35 years into the optics and ophthalmology business, so it was no surprise that he got involved with AcuFocus and its device for treating presbyopia. Mazzo, who stepped down from leading Abbott Medical Optics earlier this year, added another title to his resume that’s more of a departure: He’s the 1st "operating partner" at Versant Ventures.
The Menlo Park, Calif.-based venture capital shop tapped Mazzo for chairman & CEO of AcuFocus and its Kamra inlay. But it’s the OP role, which will see Mazzo apply his operational chops across Versant’s medtech portfolio, that’s the departure for the medtech vet.
Mazzo told MassDevice.com last week that he wanted to stretch himself following nearly a decade at the helm of Advanced Medical Optics (later Abbott Medical Optics after a $2.8 billion acquisition). The move to Versant in May came about after Mazzo was almost certain he’d like to try the private equity world, he told us.
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"When I finally said, ‘I’m going to retire from AMO,’ and announced that at the beginning of last year, I started looking around for various next moves," Mazzo said. "As the year progressed and moved into 2013, I really narrowed it down almost exclusively to entering private equity world."
But through his work with AcuFocus, Mazzo got to know the Versant team better, and when managing director William Link broached the operating partner role, he took the plunge.
"Versant has a wide portfolio outside of ophthalmology, which appeals to me, because I wanted to do something different, to look at other areas outside of ophthalmology. Versant allows me to look at opportunities that are not just in ophthalmology," Mazzo said.
Read on for a transcript of our chat, edited for clarity, in which Mazzo explains his new role at Versant, his decision to guide AcuFocus and what he’s excited about in eye care.
MassDevice.com: Tell us about your new role at Versant.
James Mazzo: I’m the only operating partner, so the good news is there’s only 1 of me, and I’m the 1st one. The operating partner is a partner who looks at the current assets of an entity, in this case Versant Ventures, and is responsible for overseeing the various assets to ensure they are in strong operational function. So my job is to look at all of our assets across Versant and then bringing my expertise of operational excellence, insuring the companies are doing well.
The other investment professionals are constantly out there foraging. They’re hunters. They’re looking for assets, they’re looking to invest in assets. My responsibility is more to lead and manage existing assets, with a special focus on a couple at a time. I will also be helping, because of my experience in the medical device arena, looking for assets as well – if I see something, I would bring it to the Versant team.
What I loved about Versant is that it’s not just in the ophthalmic area. I’ve had experience in dermatology, aesthetics, and to some extent cardiovascular and being with other entities and watching and being the chair of AdvaMed. Versant has a wide portfolio outside of ophthalmology, which appeals to me, because I wanted to do something different, to look at other areas outside of ophthalmology. Versant allows me to look at opportunities that are not just in ophthalmology.
It’s a great group of investment and financial partners, but they haven’t had an operating partner. So being the 1st in a leading venture capital group was something that was really appealing to me. I can learn from them and what they’ve done in the past, and hopefully I can bring some discipline to running companies, because obviously that’s what I’ve done in the past. We spun AMO, we sold Abbott, we acquired 6 assets while at AMO and 2 while at Abbott. These are the kinds of things I like to do. The combination of being a great company, great science at Versant, and being able to be the 1st operating partner was very exciting to me.
MassDevice.com: What other options did you consider before you decided to join Versant?
James Mazzo: I was with Allergan for 22 years, lived overseas, ran Europe, Africa and the Middle East, then took AMO public when we spun from Allergan in 2002 and sold it to Abbott. Upon the acquisition with Abbott, I had agreed to stay in my role of running AMO for a couple of years and then transfer it over to a new leader. During that time, I also became chairman of AdvaMed, so that extended me to a 3rd year with Abbott, because I wanted to continue in that role as chairman.
Last year I had a conversation with the senior management at Abbott and said, "OK, I think it’s time for me to move on and you put on a new leader at AMO, per what we had discussed earlier when we sold the company." I agreed to stay on and help with that transition for about a year as we identified the candidate, Murthy [Simhambhatla], and then Murthy came on and he mirrored me until the end of the year, and then I worked with him until the end of May. So I retired from Abbott at the end of May
When I finally said, "I’m going to retire from AMO," and announced that at the beginning of last year, I started looking around for various next moves. Do I go back into the public world and become a public CEO? Do I go back to being the CEO of a private entity? I looked at private equity, I looked at venture capital and I really spent a long time analyzing it. It was a great time for me to continue to run AMO and listen, learn in areas I knew and listen, learn in areas I didn’t know. As the year progressed and moved into 2013, I really narrowed it down almost exclusively to entering private equity world. I had done CEO of a public company, CEO of a private company – that’s a little different, but not that much different, so I really wanted to stretch myself into doing something I had never done before.
At that time Bill Link, who is one of the managing partners at Versant, asked if I would be willing to be executive chair of AcuFocus, which I agreed to at the beginning of the year. As I spent more time with the Versant people and really identified what I like to do and what I do well, Bill and the Versant people said, "Look, why don’t you look at what you were looking at in the private equity world where you could help run assets, but do it with Versant and become our 1st operating partner, where you can control all assets but with a special focus on several assets at a time."
I decided to do it is because I enjoy putting operational controls and organizing entities and making them stronger, I like putting management teams in place and identifying strong people, I like putting organizations in place to potentially move on and grow and be sold or acquired per se. So it was a good combination and I also knew the people at Versant well so I decided to pursue that by becoming their first operating partner.
MassDevice.com: Do you think Versant will look to add on another operating partner? Will this be something that catches on at other VC shops?
James Mazzo: Well, you hope you’re successful enough that it leads to others. Hopefully I execute to the level that I promised to do and if so, it catches on not only with Versant, but with other venture groups., When you have assets, those assets can always use some discipline to make them better assets. And even if they’re great assets, there’s no reason they can’t be greater. Nobody ever stops learning or stops growing, so if you can bring great assets together and harmonize around some disciplines, which hopefully I’ve had with my 30-odd years of experience. I would hope that it would grow into other operating partners and that other venture firms will look at it.
MassDevice.com: What’s most exciting to you now, as you survey the optics and ophthalmology field?
James Mazzo: I love this industry. I’ve been in it 33 years so it’s in my blood. So it doesn’t take much to get me excited about optometry or ophthalmology in any way, because it’s something I’ve known and grown up with and I know everyone in the field.
But I would say the primary focuses of interest would be retina, it would be glaucoma, because those are 2 areas where we don’t have a cure for a terrible disease that leads to blindness. Another area is dry eye. It’s been an area of passion for a long time. It goes back even to the days when Gavin Herbert brought me on board, because it’s a disease that is misdiagnosed and even goes undiagnosed and it affects a tremendous amount of people. It has various stages and we really don’t have very strong products or systems to be able to meet this ongoing need on a global basis.
And then presbyopia – it’s not a disease entity like we think of in glaucoma or retina, but it is debilitating from a standpoint of being able to see in the fashion that we all want. Yes, we can have Lasik and put a presbyopic eye well in or a camera product that we have here at AcuFocus, but still presbyopia is a disease that’s only going to grow in prevalence as we all get older.
MassDevice.com: What was it about AcuFocus that made you want to join the company?
James Mazzo: That kind of goes back to what I said about private companies and why I wanted to join a company. It’s got great science. It hits an age group that’s post-Lasik, pre-cataract, so there really isn’t a treatment other than glasses. So it was the ability to impact a population that has a need but doesn’t have opportunities.
The company is in great shape, but it just needed some leadership directions and controls and added people. So it had a lot of the essence of what I was talking about, the operational excellence that I like to do and get involved in. So it moved from a science project to an actual company on a global basis. It’s in the midst of moving toward FDA approval, so there’s a lot of excitement around that. So it had a lot of interest for me and it’s obviously in a space I know quite well, so I agreed to take it on as executive chair and now as operating partner. This 1 was just a natural progression for me to take on, to spend more time helping this great management team lead it to the next level.
MassDevice.com: Where is AcuFocus now on the regulatory pathway?
James Mazzo: We have filed [for pre-market approval] and are currently in discussions with the FDA as we speak, hoping we’ll get to [an FDA advisory] panel sometime next year. We are well on schedule and very excited about it.
We’re approved and selling in Japan, we’re approved in many countries across the globe. We just got approval in Canada and Mexico, so we have a very strong global footprint, but obviously the U.S. is a critical phase for this company and takes it obviously to the next level.