FOCUSING ON LASER EYE SURGERY DAVID MULLER SIZED UP HIS BOSSES AND THOUGHT, "THEY'RE NO DIFFERENT FROM ME. IF THEY CAN DO IT, SO CAN I." SO HE STARTED HIS OWN COMPANY.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Chances are, you've never heard of Summit Technology in Waltham, Massachusetts. But if you are one of the 60 million or so nearsighted Americans who wear glasses or contact lenses and would prefer not to, you probably soon will. At least that's the high-tech future being eyed by Summit founder David Muller, 46, a college dropout and former carpenter and sewer installer.
His ten-year-old company manufactures and markets what is known as an excimer laser, a system that uses a series of short pulses of deep ultraviolet light to correct nearsightedness and other vision disorders. In a procedure called photorefractive keratectomy, or PRK, an ophthalmologist uses the computer-controlled beam to remove very thin layers of a patient's cornea. PRK has an advantage over an older surgical method known as radial keratotomy since it doesn't involve a scalpel.
Summit's technology has been in use in Europe and Canada since 1988. However, to crack the U.S. market it needs Food and Drug Administration approval. The company took a giant step toward that goal in October when an influential FDA ophthalmic advisory panel voted 13 to 1 in favor of approving the laser procedure. Final word should come this year. So far 30 of Summit's 250 employees worldwide have undergone the procedure. Was Muller one of them? "I'm not even a candidate for my own product," says the boss, whose eyesight is perfect. Such a venture was not Muller's early calling. By 1968 he had flunked out of two colleges--Boston University and Emerson--and was installing sewer pipes at the Haystack Mountain ski resort in Vermont. A year later he found work as a carpenter, building houses. "The first year it was fun," he recalls. "But then it started getting a little old. I remember one December up there putting a window in this house, and I was holding the nails in my mouth as I worked. It was so cold that after a while the nails were actually frozen to my lips, and I remember thinking to myself, 'There's got to be something better in life. I'm smarter than this.' That was really a turning point for me."
Muller recognized that he'd go nowhere without an education, so he applied to BU's night program, paying for his first semester with $1,500 he won in a poker game with some friends. Three years later, on a full scholarship, he graduated with degrees in chemistry and physics. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Cornell, where he first began to learn about lasers and their applications, and then accepted a fellowship at the University of Illinois. Laser-related jobs with small companies in San Diego and Boston over the next several years, including a stint of what he calls "Star Wars research," only proved to him that he would never be happy working for someone else. "I looked at the people running these companies and thought, 'They're really no different from me. If they can do it, so can I.' "
In 1985 he hooked up with two professors at Boston University to start Summit. With Muller as CEO, it raised $3.5 million from institutional investors to produce excimer laser equipment that could be used for angioplasty, a procedure that clears clogged arteries in the heart. But soon Muller began exploring how lasers could be used in the treatment of vision disorders, potentially a much bigger market.
By 1987 nearly all the startup financing was gone, and Muller couldn't persuade investors to fork over more. With his back against the wall, he took the company public, raising $6 million. "Most companies look at going public as a celebration of success," he says. "For us it was a matter of survival."
Survive it did. A year later Summit began to sell laser equipment to research centers in the U.S. and introduced the PRK procedure in Europe, Canada, and the Middle East, where approval was more speedily given. The technique proved so popular that two years ago Summit opened three walk-in centers in Britain--in London, Birmingham, and Edinburgh. Some 250,000 patients have undergone the laser treatment. Typical cost: $1,500 per eye.
Muller plans to roll out similar walk-in centers in the U.S. if he gets FDA approval. "Ultimately, this is a consumer-driven business, not a product business," he says. "The key is making people aware that this is a much less risky alternative to a scalpel."
The company has yet to make much money. Last year it lost an estimated $15 million on revenues of about $26 million. With so much riding on a yes or no from the FDA--and the potentially huge U.S. market-has it all seemed worthwhile to Mul ler? "There have been a number of times when I felt like I was standing at the edge of the abyss looking down into a black hole with no bottom," he says with a laugh. "But no, there's never been a time when I thought I shouldn't be doing this."