Earl Bakken

Earl Bakken

The Founder of Modern Medical Technology

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Back in the days when Medtronic founder Earl Bakken wore flannel shirts and jeans to repair electrical medical equipment in his northeast Minneapolis garage, he had no idea he was helping launch the modern medical-technology industry. “My only dream was to reach a point where we could take money out of the company and have a living for our families,” he says.

In 1949, it seemed like a lofty goal for the graduate student in electrical engineering who had teamed up with his brother-in-law, Palmer Hermundslie, to turn an $8 profit in their first month in business. During the 1950s, however, Bakken, who had been drawn to the idea of combining electricity and medicine since seeing the movie Frankenstein in high school, would eclipse his humble beginnings. He and Hermundslie began supporting their fledgling business by selling new monitoring devices and diagnostic tools—EKGs, blood-flow machines, blood-gas shakers, cell counters—for other companies. “We didn’t see ourselves on the cutting edge,” Bakken says. “We didn’t realize how exciting the times were until we looked back on them later.”

Bakken says much of being an entrepreneur is being in the right place at the right time. Those two elements came together at the University of Minnesota Hospitals, where Bakken met Dr. Walter Lillehei, who had been operating on “blue babies,” infants with a bluish tinge to their skin caused by insufficiently oxygenated blood. To keep their hearts beating after surgery, Dr. Lillehei had no choice but to use large, alternating-current-powered pacemakers that were only as reliable as their external power supply. On October 31, 1957, a baby died during a sudden power blackout. For a solution, Lillehei turned to Bakken. “He asked Earl for a battery,” says current Medtronic CEO Bill George. “Earl came back with a device.”

It was a turning point in Medtronic’s history, but at the time, Bakken treated it with the same weight as any other request. He went to work, consulting Popular Electronics magazine, reading up on metronomes, and recalling lessons from his science classes. After four weeks of experimentation, Bakken emerged from his garage with the world’s first small, self-contained, transistorized, battery-powered pacemaker, which could be taped to the patient’s chest or bed free of any power cords or connections.

Bakken was startled to see a little girl wearing the device at a university hospital the day after he delivered it to Dr. Lillehei. “That was an emotional experience,” he says, “to see something you had made with your own hands being used to keep a person alive.” Bakken’s creation came about before medical devices had been placed under mandatory review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Today, it would probably take approximately seven years for such an invention to find its way through the obligatory maze of regulations.

Within a short time, Medtronic was receiving orders from all over the country, but it didn’t decide to become an exclusive pacemaker manufacturer. Instead, Bakken added cardiac pacemakers to the company’s ever-increasing product line, which included such devices as defibrillators, animal respirators, cardiac rate monitors, and physiologic stimulators, among others.

By 1960, business was taking off, but Bakken was running out of money and still working out of his garage. After local banks turned him down for financing, he decided to write a mission statement to help potential backers understand what he was trying to accomplish. Eventually, Bakken obtained financing and brough Medtronic out of its darkest days.

Medtronic has continued to expand its product portfolio ever since. Today, it remains the world leader in cardiac-rhythym management, while continuing to pursue therapeutic implants for Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, brain tumors, incontinence, sleep apnea, and epilepsy.

Bakken’s “high-tech, high-touch” mission, which emphasizes human welfare as well as the latest in biomedical engineering, remains Medtronic’s backbone. When asked to reconcile compassion with business success, he doesn’t skip a beat. “They’re one and the same,” Bakken says. “If you’re doing something that’s positive for people, it’s fair and reasonable that there’s a good living in it.”

Medtronic, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, now sports 20,000 employees and offices around the world. At age 84, Bakken, who traded in his flannel shirts for Hawaiian shirts when he retired 10 years ago, still meets with new employees to explain Medtronic’s mission. Much of his time also is consumed by his latest project: the Healing Island, a center in Hawaii that emphasizes balance between technology and the human touch to provide patient-centered, cost-efficient care.

“Sometimes Earl’s vision is so radical that people are stunned by it,” says George. “He can look at an open field and see a beautiful park.”

Timeline

1924 – Born in Minneapolis.
1942-1946 – Serves in the U.S. Air Force.
1948 – Earns electrical engineering degree from the University of Minnesota.
1949 – Cofounds Medtronic with Palmer Hermundslie.
1957 – Develops first wearable, external, battery-powered transistorized pacemaker.
1970 – Opens Bakken Library and Museum of Electricity in Life, Minneapolis.
1957-1976 – Serves as Medtronic’s CEO and chairman of the board.
1989 – Retires as an officer of Medtronic.
1996 – Heads North Hawaii Community Hospital’s Board of Directors in the opening of a new healing center.

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