Alumni Profile: A Whole New Ball Game

Former Stanford linebacker tackles medical device development

By Susan Ipaktchian
Photograph courtesy of San Francisco 49ers

Linebackers are, by necessity, opportunists. When they line up on the football field, their eyes lock onto the opposing quarterback, searching for clues about where the ball might be headed and anticipating how to position themselves to be in the middle of the action. As a former linebacker for Stanford University and the San Francisco 49ers, Milt McColl perfected the skills to capitalize on opportunities life tossed his way -- both on and off the field. When a quirk of timing gave McColl a chance to explore the world of medical device development rather than the career in orthopedic surgery he had planned, he picked up the ball and has been running with it for the past 13 years.

"There are great things about being a practicing physician, but there are a lot of other ways to influence medicine," says McColl, who received his medical degree from Stanford in 1987. "I'm helping people in a different way and it's worked out great for me."

McColl is currently the general manager of Boston Scientific-EPI, a company based in Santa Clara, Calif., that is developing an embolic protection tool now under review by the Food and Drug Administration. The FilterWire™ device is designed to catch particles that float into the bloodstream after clogged cardiac arteries are opened with stents. The drifting particles can cause blockages in smaller arteries further downstream resulting in a heart attack or stroke.

The small, basket-like FilterWire device is placed downstream of the blockage before the stent is inserted. At the end of the procedure, the apparatus is removed while the stent remains in place permanently. The tool was recently tested in 1,000 patients in a multicenter trial that included Stanford Hospital & Clinics. Results from the trial indicated that it had a success rate equal to that of a similar piece of equipment currently on the market. With both devices, only 10 percent of patients experienced complications compared with a 20 percent complication rate among patients in whom no device was used.

McColl says that while the initial application of the FilterWire device is in cardiology, the company believes it also has potential in carotid artery surgery as well as treatments for renal disease and peripheral vascular disease. The company estimates potential sales of $500 million over 10 years.

Boston Scientific-EPI is the fifth startup McColl has worked for, and he says he enjoys the world of private industry even though it was something he had never considered while he was in medical school.

"I always thought I knew what I was going to do with my life," he recalls. "When I was in eighth grade, I was named 'Most Likely to Succeed' and in the yearbook they asked what I was going to be when I grew up, and I said I was going to be a professional football player and an orthopedic surgeon."

Heady aspirations to be sure, but McColl was simply following in the footsteps of his father, Bill, an orthopedic surgeon and two-time All-American at Stanford who went on to play for the Chicago Bears.

Although McColl wasn't drafted by an NFL team after receiving his biology degree in 1981 from Stanford, where he was named an Academic All-American, he tried out for the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent. After the grueling weeks of training camp, he found out almost simultaneously that he had made the team and been accepted into Stanford's medical school.

Training, Training and More Training

The next six years of McColl's life were split between football and medicine. "It was difficult, but I liked having six months doing something really physical and not so mental and then six months doing something mental and not so physical. It kept me from being bored," he says with a laugh.

Then in 1987 an internship opportunity at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center presented itself. "Someone had quit in the middle of the year, so they asked if I could graduate really quickly and help them out," he says. "I said I'd do it if I could go back and play football that year and then come back in January to finish the internship. They were very flexible with me, like Stanford had always been, so it made my life very easy."

Well, somewhat easy. On top of the demands of being an intern, McColl needed to stay in shape for football. "I can remember trying to find a half-hour to work out when I was on call for 24 hours," he says.

He completed the internship in 1989 after spending his final pro football season with the Los Angeles Raiders, received his medical license and then realized he had a few months to fill before residency slots would open up. "I had to make a living, so I chose to go work with Origin Medsystems, a startup company in orthopedics, that was developing a product for hip replacements," he says. "I took a job as a director of marketing and new business development."

He enjoyed the work so much that he opted to forgo his residency and stick with private industry. Since then he has worked at several startups in leading roles -- as CEO, president and vice president/chief medical officer -- working with regulatory agencies, raising capital and overseeing clinical trials.

"Medical school taught me the basic science work of how to think through problems, and it gave me an entrée into this world," McColl says. "A lot of my job involves calling physicians. They're more willing to take calls from Dr. McColl than from Mr. McColl. Plus, you can talk to them on the same level. When you can make that connection, you establish a whole different relationship."

He encourages medical students and physicians to keep their career options open. "You can go into research, you can work the academic routes, you can be a practicing physician and you can look at the opportunities in private industry," he says. "It's just a different way of helping people and advancing medicine."

These days, football plays a minor role in McColl's life, given the demands of his career and his desire to spend as much time as possible with his wife and four sons at their home in Los Altos Hills. But he attends the occasional Stanford game and makes it to the 49ers' alumni game each year. He also serves as president of Stanford's $90-million Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation venture-capital investment fund that contributes $5 million annually to the university's athletics program.

Asked what his next career move might be, McColl remains flexible. "I never look too far ahead in my career. You never know when the next door will open for you."

Spoken like a true linebacker.

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