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David Hovda on Innovation, Startups and Artificial Disc Replacement

As CEO of Simplify Medical, David Hovda continues to follow a path of compelling opportunities, wherever they may lead. His journey began as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, serving two tours of duty, followed by two years of academia. He attended Northwestern University for his B.A. in Engineering, and while attending Harvard Graduate School for Business Administration for his MBA, he completed an internship with Eli Lilly.

That internship directed his focus to medical devices and the desire to help patients by bringing to market products that will improve their quality of life through innovative approaches. Mr. Hovda previously worked at ArthroCare and Medtronic before joining Simplify Medical, and he has more than 30 medical device patents to his name. Under his leadership, Simplify Medical has developed an artificial, metal-free cervical disc that can be imaged using MRI. The Simplify Disc is CE Marked and is being evaluated in separate FDA Investigational Device Exemptions for one- and two-level replacements.

“I believe that those of us working in medical devices are honored to have the opportunity to make a positive difference in our patients’ lives,” Hovda said.

We asked Mr. Hovda to share lessons learned during his career and his thoughts on the industry.

Please tell us about your career journey, from the U.S. Navy to business leadership and inventor. How did you decide on this path?

Mr. Hovda: My career has been a series of pursuing the most interesting opportunities, rather than a well-planned process.

I attended college on a Navy Reserve Officer Training Course (NROTC) scholarship and earned an engineering degree. The Navy offered many new opportunities, and over three rewarding years on my destroyer (USS Hayler, DD 997), I was fortunate to work with many bright and talented people, build my management skills, develop my management style and learn from experienced colleagues. To this day, I greatly respect the contributions and capabilities of our military professionals.

Following this, I was selected to be an NROTC instructor at MIT, where I helped prepare some extremely intelligent and curious college students to become officers in the Navy. I taught them technical and leadership skills as well as specialized training. During my time at MIT, I had the opportunity to take several graduate courses, and based on this learning, decided to leave the Navy to attend Harvard Business School. It was here where I first gained an interest in healthcare.

I worked at Eli Lilly for my summer internship. Until then, I had not realized it was possible to have a career helping patients without going to medical school. My experience that summer was fascinating and led me to focus on medical devices. I joined Medtronic after business school, and have now worked in medical devices for more than 25 years.

What is the most important lesson you have learned in business?

Mr. Hovda: I have learned that innovation is rarely a smooth process and often requires perseverance to make real progress. Usually, it goes well beyond what you thought would be needed at the start. You have to have conviction that you are on the right track, and shrug off a lot of “no” to get to the rare “yes.” Concerning the medical device space, I believe it is essential for success to focus on substantially helping patients, rather than purely hitting milestones, and this includes providing significant efficacy with an equally impressive safety profile.

In your experience, what are the key attributes of a successful businessperson?

Mr. Hovda: In medical device startups, I believe a successful person needs to be comfortable working across many functions because the team is often small, and each member’s responsibilities are broad. You wear many hats in a startup! Raising money to fund these efforts, which increasingly require more money for longer timelines, can consistently be a challenge. You have to balance wanting to find ways to work faster and smarter with the fact that we operate in a heavily regulated industry to ensure that we conduct business in a high-quality way and prove positive outcomes over many years. Ultimately, we must show that our products can help patients and deserve the opportunity to be marketed, which requires a strong commitment.

What is your vision for Simplify Medical’s future?

Mr. Hovda: We have developed the Simplify Disc, a cervical disc replacement that we believe offers unique benefits to patients by allowing many of them to avoid motion-restricting fusion. We make our device from materials designed to optimize MRI, which is the imaging method that surgeons prefer to use for soft tissue issues. It also has the benefit of avoiding patient exposure to substantial ionizing radiation, which occurs with every CT scan.

In addition, we have created the Simplify Disc in lower disc heights compared to other discs, which will better match patient anatomy. Our design avoids metal wear from the bearing surface and is also “nickel free,” which is important for patients with nickel allergies.

Ultimately, our goal is that Simplify Disc will be available to patients worldwide and provide them with better efficacy and safety than current options. For surgeons, we want Simplify Disc to be durable and easy to implant, provide their patients with excellent clinical outcomes, and allow them to continue to monitor and diagnose patients with MRI rather than CT scans. 

Mr. Hovda is an ORTHOWORLD® Member. Read our full success story interview with him

Heather Tunstall is an ORTHOWORLD Contributing Editor.