Dennis McFadden, vice president of corporate development for Ativa Medical, is working at his sixth startup company. “One was a failure, four were moderate successes and this is the capstone,” he says. “I’m using what I’ve learned at previous businesses to help this company take on a leadership position.” For McFadden, lessons can be learned not only from previous jobs, but from role models, books, hobbies and, of course, his years as a student at St. Thomas.
St. Thomas’ rigorous curriculum was one of the features that attracted McFadden. “I didn’t want an advanced trade degree. I wanted to expand my horizons and be a better thinker,” he said. McFadden, who served in the military before enrolling as an undergraduate student, also appreciated St. Thomas’ enthusiasm for nontraditional students. “Father Lavin and the admissions office made me comfortable and helped me make a good transition.”
McFadden started his post-college career as a banker. From there he moved to Cray Research as treasurer. At Cray, he met CFO John Carlson, who later would become the company’s chief executive. He became one of McFadden’s role models. “I would ask, ‘What would I do if I were John?’” McFadden said. Carlson’s life so moved him that when Carlson became ill in 2006 and McFadden was unable to visit him, he wrote a letter to let Carlson know how important he had been in his life. “I was told he cried when he read it,” he said.
Cray started McFadden’s entrepreneurial career with technology companies, many of them in the medical device field. “When I had my first taste of entrepreneurship,” he said, “I decided to repeat it.” Rather than taking his one failure as a sign to end his entrepreneurial career, he analyzed what went wrong in order to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
“We didn’t understand the industry,” he said. “We believed ‘If you build it, they will come,’ and they didn’t come.We thought capital would flow, but it didn’t. The industry faltered. And our team was good, but not great.” He sees his current company as a positive contrast to that failure. “Ativa has a big market, great technology, an outstanding management team and board, and the investors are interested.”
McFadden not only wants to make Ativa a success, he wants to be a mentor to youngSt. Thomas entrepreneurs and see them succeed as well. For him, an important part of being an entrepreneur is serving others. “Much of my experience has been with medical device companies. When you work for such companies, you not only are doing business and creating wealth, but you’re also doing good. … I don’t want to be someone who, at the end of the day, only creates money, not doing anything for the health and welfare of others.”
McFadden also believes that an entrepreneurial atmosphere is stimulating: “You get to work with new technology and be a part of how it is shaped and harnessed. In my current position, I work with young scientists who help me maintain a freshness and vitality in my outlook.”
An avid reader, McFadden recently completed April 1865 by Jay Winik. He came awayimpressed by Abraham Lincoln’s ability to stay true to his mission. “He had a persistent belief that union was important. He stuck to that principle against all odds. It would be easy to seek vengeance, but he chose to stay tuned to his principle. He didn’t beat his adversaries down; he uplifted them to accomplish his mission. The result is that the United States is a world leader today. If Lincoln had behaved otherwise, we probably would have gone into another civil war. I learned that there will be setbacks, but persistent belief will guide you.”
McFadden, too, plans to stay true to his belief in a thoughtful, moral approach to entrepreneurship.
About Ativa Medical Inc.
Located in St. Paul, Ativa Medical is a medical diagnostics company that specializes in the finishing game – taking a product at the proof of concept level tocompletion. Ativa’s first product is a point-of-care system for Complete BloodCount. The product will cut labor costs for CBC by 60 percent and, for the firsttime, will give the physician the ability to complete a CBC test while talking withthe patient. McFadden notes that Ativa has several ties to St. Thomas. In addition to McFadden, one other member of the senior management team has a degreefrom St. Thomas, as does one of the board members. In addition, Ativa activelyworks with St. Thomas professors in marketing, manufacturing and engineering.