Joe Eichinger went well beyond being a serial entrepreneur. He spent the past 20 years in a perpetual state of start-up, launching half a dozen companies and advising an ever-expanding network of fellow medical-device developers on countless others.
After he died on March 8, of pancreatic cancer at age 65, Eichinger's wife, Mary, was going through his things at their home near Seattle and discovered her husband had held on to boxes of his obsolete business cards: 24 positions at 17 companies. "And he was planning to go well into his 70s," she says.
A devoted networker with a remarkable memory, Eichinger knew diseases, technologies, and people. And he knew how to raise money.
"He was a walking Rolodex," says David Auth, a co-founder of Eichinger's final start-up, CoAptus Medical Corporation. "Joe had an insatiable curiosity and a fundamental need to marry some technology to some clinical need." CoAptus aims to use radio frequency to shut a tunnel in the human heart that is supposed to close up on its own after birth but doesn't always do so. Eichinger raised $10 million to get the company through successful animal testing and was gearing up to raise another $10 million for clinical human trials when he learned last November that he had cancer.
An engineer, Eichinger was one of the first employees at ATL Ultrasound, a Seattle-area pioneer in the technology. ATL was acquired in 1998 for about $800 million by Philips, the Dutch electronics giant. As ATL grew, however, Eichinger realized he was a start-up guy, and he left before any big payoff. "I would have been miserable," he told Mary.
Most of his start-ups involved ultrasound, an old technology that is still finding new uses in drug delivery and disease treatment. On a business trip to Japan in the early 1990s, Eichinger met two physicians who were trying to use ultrasound to help deliver drugs to hard-to-reach spots in the body. Excited, he worked with the doctors and others to start EKOS, a Seattle-area company, and raised several million dollars. "Then Joe -- and this is very typical of Joe -- said, 'I'm not the guy to take this across the goal line,' and he recruited a new CEO and left," says Doug Hansmann, an EKOS co-founder and chief operating officer. The company now has sales of more than $10 million.
Eichinger was the kind of man who could gain fans and friends rather than lose them as he flitted from start-up to start-up. He once shuttered a failing foray into software retailing but lingered, unpaid, to make sure investors got back as much money as possible. A few years later, while Eichinger and Hansmann were raising cash for EKOS, they bumped into one of the software investors. "He wrote us a check for $50,000," Hansmann says.
In recent years, Eichinger also helped the University of Washington work on improving its record of commercializing technology. He had a knack for listening to academics and teasing out something investors might like. "What the academics write, you put it in front of a VC and they'd puke," says Matt O'Donnell, dean of engineering at the school and a fellow ultrasound veteran. "Joe understood. He was an aggressive, typical entrepreneur, nice as hell, and spent a lot of time helping people. You don't find that combination a lot."