“Today marks a milestone, a watershed moment,” Maurice R. Ferré told his employees last December, on the day of the sale of MAKO Surgical. “It is the end of a nine-year startup company that grew up, a company that went against all odds and succeeded in starting the orthopedic robotic revolution. . . . Remember that this journey is far from over, rather it is being catapulted to new levels and opportunities.”
And, he added, “there is so much more to do” — words he has personally taken to heart.
You could have forgiven Ferré, the chairman and CEO, for taking time off after selling the robotics company he co-founded in Davie for $1.65 billion in December. After all, that was an intense ride, as he and his top team grew the company to 500 employees and more than $100 million in annual revenue.
While Ferré says he did take “a pause” to figure out his post-MAKO life, it was a short pause. Ferré revealed that his post-MAKO plan includes building another company, investing and advising in others, and giving back through mentorship and board involvement.
Ferré is also building a robotics education program for school age children. As part of that, 20 fifth- and sixth-graders participated in a four-week summer camp last month at Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in Overtown. The students built robots, got a virtual tour of the world-renowned robotics lab at Stanford University, saw how they were designed and assembled at Styrker-MAKO and saw them at work in a Larkin Hospital operating room. This was the pilot program for a bigger, scalable initiative he is working on with Nola Garcia of StarBot to take the program into schools.
Then there’s the next big thing Ferré is involved with, which he will only say will be transformational robotic technology for the brain, and he has taken on advisory roles with companies in South Florida and around the world doing cutting-edge work in the field.
Leadership and entrepreneurship run deep in Ferré’s family. His grandparents came from Venezuela and Puerto Rico to call Miami home. Ferré said his grandfather, Joe Ferré, was an industrialist who took control of Maule Industries, one of the world’s largest cement companies, in 1955. His father, Maurice A. Ferré, was a six-term mayor of Miami. “His dedication and commitment has made Miami the great city that we see today,” Ferré said of his father.
The Miami Herald visited Ferré in his Key Biscayne office to ask him more about his post-MAKO life and to reflect on his MAKO years. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
Q. What’s life like after MAKO?
A. I wake up in the morning, run with the dogs, take my shower and then come over here (his office is next door to his home) and get my day going.
As a serial entrepreneur, I had been at this for 19 years, back to back, nonstop. My first company was up in Boston (called Visualization Technology), another transformational company in image-guided surgery. That company was sold to GE, and it took 10 years from start to exit. At that time I promised my wife, Maria Dolores, I would move back to Miami, and it was great to come back here, but I went right into MAKO.
Coming out from MAKO six months ago, I finally had a great opportunity to take a pause and spend quality time with my family, especially Maria Dolores, who enabled me by supporting the demanding schedule of a CEO running a publicly traded company.
I have had time to reflect, read books, and look at different perspectives. I got a lot of advice from a lot of different people. I immediately got several offers and was asked to run two companies, one publicly traded, one private, on the West Coast, which I declined. I really don’t want to leave South Florida; this is my home. ... In the early days of MAKO when I was up against the wall and had to raise money to keep the doors open, I found an investor that sent me a term sheet. The condition was to move the company to the Bay Area. I’m glad I said no because we created a great success story in South Florida.
I have been very fortunate and I thank God for all my success. I concluded that I am too young to retire and really I want to continue to innovate and produce and also want to start giving back. In business I have learned first you learn, then you execute, then if you are like most people you fail, then you get back on your feet and then produce once again. And once you succeed, you are obligated to give back.
Q. Tell me more about the give-back part.
A. I joined three nonprofit boards, two that impact South Florida. The Everglades Foundation is a scientific-based organization that is really making an impact on restoring the Florida Everglades. The flow of clean water from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades will have a material impact for generations to come. ... We are moving the agenda, but have a lot to do.
I also joined the Endeavor Miami board. Endeavor is an international organization that brings business leaders to help mentor and foster entrepreneurship at a local level. The Endeavor Entrepreneurs around the world have generated over $6 billion in revenue. The model works. In Miami it is supported not only by the Knight Foundation but also a stellar team of successful business leaders. It’s exciting because Endeavor Miami, formed only a year ago, has been chosen as the first U.S.-based program. I have the opportunity to mentor young entrepreneurs, and it’s the type of catalyst we need in South Florida.
Finally, I recently joined the board of Boston University, my alma mater. My grandfather, my brothers and sister all went there. BU has really helped me out in my career. It allowed me to get a medical degree and combine business and medicine. It really kicked me off in my career, so I am really indebted to BU.
Q. Why are you starting a robotics program for kids?
A. At MAKO, we had over 100 engineers and were doing all these H1 Visas. It didn’t make sense to me why there weren’t more American engineers coming out from the education system that can contribute directly. I started working with a lot of the schools and universities here. For the United States to continue to be strong, we need more engineers to innovate. The data were showing where you can have the largest impact on influencing directionally is to get more middle school students excited about engineering. We’ve supported various efforts over the last five years in inner-city schools. It has been rewarding, but I felt we weren’t moving fast enough and struggled with how to measure success and how to scale. So this year we took on a different approach.
We brought in experts in various disciplines and embarked on a one-year pilot to take the concept to the next level. So we put together a really unique curriculum where we brought in a Stanford University professor, Ken Salisbury, and the kids got a virtual tour of one of the best biorobotics labs in the world. We had them build robotic arms, similar to what we did at MAKO, and we had a whole curriculum around anatomy and physiology. Once they built it, we showed them how these are being used, we brought them to Larkin Hospital, where they met a renowned orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Carlos Lavernia. They saw how the robotics arms were being used in medicine. We brought them to the Stryker-MAKO facility, where they met engineers, including engineers that came out of their neighborhoods and are great role models. What really got them excited was a visit from One Laptop Per Child’s CEO Rodrigo Arboleda. His research has shown that when you give a laptop, the logical thing to do is build things on it, and the process develops kids’ creative thinking.
Now we are looking at how we can implement this within schools starting in South Florida. We are bringing into the process art and creativity, we had Pharrell talk to these kids. We are going to follow and mentor these 20 kids for the next few years and bring in more kids. We’ll see where this goes, but we are very excited about it. We had a staff of 15 people working on this project over the summer with all the right disciplines in place.
Q. How will you scale and measure the program?
A. To me, the metric of success is linking it back to success scores and metrics. We’ll look at how these kids perform before and after and we spent a lot of time being very specific about developing the curriculums. We want to see measurable results. The kids have been tested before the program, and within 6 months we’ll test them again and continue following these kids.
On scalability, we have to develop a sustainable method where we want to be able to create a low-cost scalable program that is plug-and-play across all the schools and tie it into STEM programs. We want to include entrepreneurship, allowing these kids to interact with each other across different programs. We want them to understand what it means to build a sustainable program. We want them to be part of the solution. One of the things we see doing is to link to Operation Walk, which is an international program where doctors give their time in third-world countries to treat underprivileged patients. We want to be building these crowdfunding programs where the kids can raise money for buying implants for Operation Walk, so not only do they build it and experience it, they are also interacting with the families of these kids and contributing to kids being able to walk again. So you bring the whole experience into one. That’s the next level of what we want to do with this program.
Q. All this and you are building another company too?
A. It’s round three. For me, round three is going to be another transformational company, and my goal is to do it once again here in South Florida. [He wouldn’t say too much at this point in development except that the technology combines robotics and the brain.]
One obvious area I am interested in is robotics. I have been engaged with almost every major robotics lab in the world and I am really excited about the next generation. We are going to see nanorobots, robots that go inside the body that are not just mechanical but also biological, and we are starting to see the beginning of that technology. I am involved with Dr. Fred Moll, a prolific healthcare inventor and founder of Intuitive Surgical, the largest robotics company in the world. I have joined the board at Auris, which I believe is going to be the next billion-dollar robotics company. The other area I am focused on is the neurosciences. In the next two decades I think what we learn and explore in the brain is going to be absolutely remarkable at all levels. The U.S. government is committed to spend $3 billion on mapping the brain. I recently began working with an Israeli company called Insightec, another transformational technology that uses high-intensity focused ultrasound where the beams go to a specific point in the brain and increase the temperature at a tiny spot. It’s scalpel-less surgery, the ultimate in minimally invasive surgery. The work they are doing around Parkinson’s and epilepsy is absolutely incredible.
Q. Are you investing in companies?
A. Yes, I’ve teamed with one of my ex-MAKO executives, Ivan Delevic, to form Crandon Capital Partners to invest in and advise promising med-tech companies. While most of our current deals are outside of South Florida, one is a local company called Dermasensor. The company is building a transformational technology that will screen for many kinds of skin cancer through a simple device and has the potential to be another billion-dollar business.
Q. Boards, investing and building the next big thing — sounds like a lot…
A. It seems like a lot of stuff, but the recipe for success is surrounding yourself with people who are willing to tell you what you need to hear and when you need to hear it. And it’s about hiring people who have what it takes and letting them run. Help them become successful, then you become successful. That’s been my recipe, starting with my wife.
Q. What books have you been reading?
A. Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Things About Hard Things, that’s a really cool book. I can totally relate to him, starting with the fact that we both sold companies for $1.6 billion and we did it in 9 years. …
I know what it feels like when you read all these books about self-improvements and learning theoretical inputs. The reality is those things are interesting, but you don’t know what you don’t know until you live it. There are those defining moments where you have to make the truly tough decisions, the tough call.
Q. What were a few of the defining moments during MAKO?
A. When people are telling you that directionally you are going the wrong place and you stay the course; even though the numbers aren’t there in the short term, you are betting on the future. When I made critical investments in capital equipment or intellectual property, those were tough decisions because I had to go off and raise more capital. The decision to go public in a tough market, that was one of the defining moments... another was going after the partial knee market where people said no one would buy a million-dollar robot for partial knee replacement. It’s where you go against conventional wisdom.
Q. What are you most proud of from the MAKO years?
A. I am proud of how quickly we got to become the fastest-growing company according to Deloitte & Touche. We took an unprecedented 20 percent market share and broke all the records on highest valuation for a med-tech company. The ability to get to $1.65 billion dollars in value was a very high mark and it was a fascinating ride. I went from hero to goat to hero and that was a real life-changing experience. We raised $350 million, did an IPO in 2008 where we were one of 13 IPOs and the only med-tech IPO, and we did it on Feb. 14 and a week later the markets crashed.
So the whole story of MAKO was defying the odds, when people thought we couldn’t pull it off. But we built the right teams and we advanced the technology – the clinical research, the clinical data, we created a lot of patents, we had over 300 patents in our field.
Q. What do you consider your biggest successes?
A. The impact on the employees … I don’t know the exact numbers but I think we made about 30 millionaires in Florida at MAKO. These are folks that took big risks with me and we together have changed their lives. And the number of lives we’ve affected through our technology — 30,000 to 40,000 people are living a better quality of life because of our technology.
And finally, the score — that we were able to make such big returns for our investors. That’s another big part of it.
Q. How would you characterize the state of the medical device industry in South Florida?
A. Florida is the third-largest device state in the country, and I think it can be better organized to become even bigger. There are now highly attractive opportunities in the device space. The new part of the equation is that we now have to look at things from a cost perspective also, and how we can improve not just the safety and efficacy of new devices but also reduce the cost of our healthcare system. There is much inefficiency in the way we treat diseases and look at diseases that can be addressed with new technologies.
I’ve been impressed with the universities — FIU, the University of Miami, they really get it. And we have had our success in the device space as well as the pharma space. Look at companies like Cordis, Baxter, Key Pharmaceuticals, Ivax and MAKO. We are really starting to have an ecosystem of medical device tech companies and engineers and leaders who are thinking this way. The entrepreneurs are coming out, too — I am seeing more business plans than I have ever seen before. Outside investors are now looking at Florida very differently than before.
I like this exciting movement that I have seen in BioFlorida, for example, and the activity of tech transfer offices like University of Florida with David Day. A lot is happening in really smart labs in Florida. I am seeing more companies getting spun out from research work. I am seeing interesting technologies in healthcare coming out of Latin America, and they are coming here to get into the U.S. markets and there are companies here wanting to enter the Latin American markets.
I think technology will play in all those spaces. What’s unique about South Florida is that it can really have a significant impact on transfer, starting from healthcare delivery systems. We are going to continue to get smarter and transfer a lot of that inventiveness over to the markets.
Q. What would you like to now add to South Florida’s entrepreneurial ecosystem?
A. To be present and visible to the next generation of entrepreneurs in the medical device space here in South Florida. And be able to share my experiences and my networks to make this bigger and bigger. It’s about connecting the dots, the technology, the people, the financing, that is what I am thriving on.
There’s something to be said about the people who come to Miami. They are smart and educated, and many have had to move here by necessity. When you have had that happen, you see great things happen. A lot of Latin Americans who came here out of necessity and are tech savvy, they are really hungry and that is going to make a big difference.
Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.
Maurice R. Ferré
Serial entrepreneur in the medical technology sector.
Background: Co-founder, chairman and CEO of Davie-based MAKO Surgical Corp. (2003-2013), a world leader in robotic orthopedic surgery, acquired by Stryker Corp. in December. Founder, CEO and president of Visualization Technology Inc. (1993-2002), a leader in image guided surgery for ENT, cranial and orthopedic procedures, acquired by GE Healthcare in 2002.
Education: Doctor of medicine and master’s degree in public health from Boston University in 1992.
Boards: The Everglades Foundation, Boston University and Endeavor Miami.
Family: Married 24 years to Maria Dolores and has four children: Isabella, Camila, Maurice and Antonia. Son of the former six-term Miami mayor Maurice A. Ferré.
Last books read: The Four Agreements, by Miguel Ruiz, and The Alchemist, by Paolo Coelho
Favorite quote: “Just win, baby” — Al Davis