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Five Questions For … Surgeon, Inventor, Musician William Cohn

Xconomy Texas — 

Houston—Innovators tend to be polymaths, standouts at a lot of different activities.

Houston heart surgeon William “Billy” Cohn exceeds even that broad definition. By day, Cohn is a Texas Medical Center fixture, caring for patients or tinkering on his never-ending list of medical device ideas. He has more than 90 U.S. patents granted or pending for heart care devices he invented, and he has also worked with renowned heart surgeon Bud Frazier on developing the first continuous flow total artificial heart.

By night, Cohn (pictured above, playing trombone) is a frequent mentoring presence at a variety of biotech and life sciences organizations, a musician with regular gigs at Houston’s jazz and blues clubs, and a skilled magician. (If you meet him, ask him to turn $20 into $100 … and then run away fast!)

Among the companies that Cohn has founded or co-founded are Viacor in Wilmington, MA, SentreHeart in Redwood City, CA; Apaxis Medical in Houston; Anaxiom in Irvine, CA; Houston Medical Robotics in Houston; and TVA Medical in Austin.

At a meeting of the Houston chapter of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs a few years ago, I remember Cohn’s advice to those who wanted to follow his entrepreneurial path. No matter what you do, he said, passion is important: “Drive it like you stole it.”

Here is an edited version of our recent conversation.

Xconomy: What is your advice to a young surgeon interested in being more entrepreneurial?

William Cohn: It’s easier to do than when I was starting off. And it’s getting easier and easier; there are ecosystems now like JLabs and TMCx—those types of institutions to help you now exist. I think the main thing you need to do is vote with your feet and immerse yourself in that environment. Hang out with those people and get involved with them in any way. Be around people with that DNA. Then you’ll start to see some of the opportunities and you can find a place to put your intellect and passion into.

I would have to say that a lot of the stuff it takes to get an idea to turn into a project, those steps are much more regimented than I would have ever imagined. Looking backwards, I can see the same series of stops that I now try to stick with that script going forward. I didn’t realize there was a script, a series of steps that I could do so things would keep moving.

X: How is doing magic similar to being an inventor?

WC: Magic is sort of like being an inventor in that you have to be creative. When you do a trick stylistically, you have to make it seem right for you. You have to invent how you’re going to go about doing that. There’s a lot of creativity in the mechanics of trick designing that’s similar to heart surgery. You have to learn a set of very focused moves, and move strictly with precision.

It takes discipline to get it perfectly done. People are standing all around and you still have to get away with it. Of course, there’s no sleight of hand in the operating room.

X: Who is the best musician you’ve played with?

WC: I played some gigs with Mick Fleetwood; he’s really good. Locally, I’ve played with Ezra Charles in his band for a number of years; Dr. Rockit; Herschel Berry. All the great Houston blues musicians.

I’m very fortunate I can leverage my physician status to get me into playing with bands that otherwise wouldn’t have anything to do with me. Being a heart surgeon has gotten me musical opportunities.

X: You’ve had many entrepreneurial successes. What has been your greatest failure?

WC: That’d be hard to say since I’ve had a lot of failures. I’m proud of every one of them. We learn from failure more than we do from our successes. Some of the things you could count as failures aren’t yet complete—I’m not counting them down and out. They failed and stay failed for several years. But then you revisit them and create value from them.

I would say my greatest failure is probably not knowing about opportunities I missed, people I should have worked with. Those are the biggest tragedies. The companies that I’ve done that haven’t succeeded consumed a lot of time and other people’s money, but I wouldn’t count them as failures.

Failure is part of the journey. You want to do it frequently and rapidly. Ideally, you fail cheaply as well. If you fail and consume a lot of time and resources, that’s not ideal. It’s only a permanent failure once you give up. If you still think there’s something that’s doable, roll your sleeves up, surround yourself with smarter people, and do it.

X: What are you going to be when you grow up?

WC: I dread the day; I don’t know. I just want to keep doing what I’m doing now. I’m having so much fun, surrounded by really cool people. We have meetings—I’m the dumbest guy there. I just think, God, I hope they don’t call on me. That should be everyone’s highest goal: surround yourself with brilliant people.