Joe Eichinger, one of the Northwest’s best-known medical device entrepreneurs of the past three decades, died yesterday at his home in Everett, WA, from complications of pancreatic cancer. He was 65.
Eichinger was in his prime as a businessman, and was fired up about his latest startup, Redmond, WA-based CoAptus Medical, when he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in late November.
“It hit him hard and fast,” says his wife, Mary Eichinger.
Few people have made such an impact on the local medical device industry. Eichinger was born and raised in the Chicago area, and got his degree in electrical engineering in 1967 at what was then called the General Motors Institute, now Kettering University. He came to the Northwest as a young engineer at Honeywell, and settled on a career in medical devices as an early employee at ATL Ultrasound, the pioneering ultrasound company in Bothell that’s now part of Royal Philips Electronics. He later worked as a stock analyst for Cable, Howse & Ragen and as a venture capitalist with Trinus. But Eichinger is best known in the medical device community as the co-founder of a number of notable Seattle-area device startups, including Ekos, Therus, AcousTx, NeoPath, and CoAptus Medical.
“He radiated the entrepreneurial spirit and instilled it in others,” says Doug Hansmann, a co-founder of Bothell, WA-based Ekos. “He was also kind, helpful, and selfless. He was our role model.”
One vintage Eichinger story stood out in particular for Hansmann. When Ekos was getting started in the mid-90s, Hansmann recalled, he and Eichinger had complementary strengths on the technical and business sides of the company. One time, Hansmann says, he struggled to remember the name of someone from Boston Scientific whom they had met, and Eichinger instantly remembered the guy’s name, his role at the company, and how they met four years prior at the American Heart Association’s annual meeting. “Joe had an incredible memory for events and people. He was great at pulling people together and visualizing how they would work together,” Hansmann says.
David Auth, another prominent medical device entrepreneur who worked closely with Eichinger at his last company, CoAptus, added: “He was a person with high moral character. He was always friendly, and very energetic in fleshing out new ideas. He couldn’t keep his hands off a good idea that needed some organization around it.”
Eichinger’s companies pursued a wide variety of diseases and medical technology challenges. Some were more successful than others. The common denominator, Eichinger once said, was that they turned on his engineer’s passion for how stuff works.
“For all the reasons I was fascinated with the interrelationships of locomotive systems, I was fascinated with the body,” Eichinger said in a 1997 interview with GMI Magazine, an alumni publication for his alma mater. “I have no reason to be interested in the medical field. It just caught my interest. The reason I do this is the fascination with what I don’t know.”
While his companies consumed much of his energy, Eichinger volunteered huge amounts of his time at the University of Washington. He was such an active mentor for young entrepreneurs on campus that engineering dean Matt O’Donnell joked at an award ceremony in January that he wasn’t sure how Eichinger had enough time to run businesses. Eichinger’s impact was strong enough that he was given the first volunteer award from the UW’s bioengineering department in January. When news spread of his diagnosis, a friend established a website at caringbridge.org, which now has more than 500 comments from friends and family.
Outside of work, Eichinger spent much of his time with the Boy Scouts and school activities of his two sons—Joey, 18, and Luke, 17. Eichinger made sure to attend the competitive rowing events of his older son and basketball games of his younger son at Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett, his wife says. His oldest son had been planning to attend Dartmouth University and join the rowing team there, until a few days later, he learned of his Dad’s cancer diagnosis, Mary Eichinger says. The decision was made that he’d stay closer to home to be near his father while time was short, and to attend the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business.
“It changed our lives. Joey wanted to stay closer to home,” she says.
I interviewed Eichinger at least a half-dozen times over the years for The Seattle Times and Xconomy, but a lot of readers certainly knew him better than I did. So if you have any memories of Joe that you’d like to share with the Seattle innovation community, please feel free to add a comment at the bottom of this story or send me a note directly at [email protected] and I’ll add it as an update.
Eichinger’s funeral will be held at 1:30 pm on Saturday, March 13, at Immaculate Conception church in Everett.
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