Lessons from A Lead Dog — An Interview with Evan Kelso

Earlier this month we sat down with Evan Kelso, CEO of Xenocor, to learn more about how he leads and operates this medical device startup. Here are some of Evan’s thoughts on laparoscopy, Salt Lake City, staying lean, and spreading aloha.
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1. What drove you to join Xenocor?

Xenocor’s board was looking for someone who had commercial experience in healthcare and a colleague here in Michigan introduced us. Since I have a strong background in clinical training and the introduction of new surgical technologies and specifically laparoscopy, I was able to quickly and clearly see the potential of this product. The company initially hired me to figure out how to propel the Xenoscope from a technology that was developed at the University of Utah to a marketable, profitable product. At the end of that process, they asked me to lead the company as CEO and I accepted because it was a compelling opportunity, which enabled me to leverage differing aspects of my years of experience in the field.

2. MPVP invests in impactful companies. Can you speak to how Xenocor is making a difference for patients and practitioners?

Before 1987, if you were to have a procedure done, your entire stomach would have to be opened up. Recovery from that surgery is about two months long and painful. Now, with laparoscopy, procedures can be done through three or five small holes called ports which allows for what is called minimally invasive surgery, with a faster recovery and significantly less pain.

However, the usual laparoscopic tower setup costs about $300,000 and the hospital may only use it a few times a year. Add on the cost to sterilize and maintain these devices and it is a huge expense. Because of this, 80% of the planet still does not have this type of surgery. When you look at Xenocor, we offer a superior laparoscopic device that is readily available when the practitioner needs it, without the usual massive amount of gear or the cost to maintain or sterilize. There’s never been a product like this before and we have the opportunity to impact the globe and bring minimally invasive surgery to everyone.

3. Do you foresee Xenocor staying in Salt Lake City, even though you live out of state?

Xenocor will always be a Salt Lake City company, yes.

I’m blessed that I get exposure to Salt Lake because it is a fertile garden of things coming out of the University. The amount of MedTech development being done in Utah is unmatched anywhere else in the US. Many companies are born as good ideas, but they must be watered, given sunshine, and cultivated to grow. Salt Lake has all the essential components to really nurture these startups — whether it be funding, access to regulatory, or even mentorship from older CEOs who have retired to the area.

4. You run a very tight ship. How do you prioritize your spending?
We’re in the commercialization phase right now and I think this is where a lot of CEOs differ in strategy. I look at it like this: I’ve never crossed the ocean in a sailboat before, but I know there’s no grocery store once you’re out the middle of the ocean. I have a crew to feed, and I must have enough food to support us on the journey. I know we’re going to run into a storm and have some issues along the way, but I want to make sure we have what we need to keep us going.

So, you have to chart out the commercialization of the product for multiple years and then plan for that variable of time so you can leave port when you’ve taken on enough funding to support yourself through that storm, if and when it comes.

5. What do you do when you’re not working on Xenocor?

I am thinking about Xenocor 24/7, but of course balance is important and we have 8-year-old identical twin boys. When I need to clear my head, I like to go into a time machine to remember my youth spent in Hawaii. I will make some teriyaki chicken with white rice and listen to Gabby Pahinui from the old days. Our boys were born in Michigan and I try to expose them to the Hawaiian culture as much as possible. Sometimes we explore my old neighborhood on Google maps and visit the banyan tree in my childhood backyard.

By Emily Thompson

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