How culture and leadership helped ventilator maker Ventec meet huge demand in COVID-19 response

Chris Kiple, CEO of Ventec Life Systems, alongside one of the company’s ventilators. (Stuart Isett Photo)

To rapidly increase a company’s production 8-fold is daunting. To ramp up 80-fold is almost unimaginable.

It’s also what Chris Kiple had to do last spring as CEO of one of the nation’s few ventilator manufacturers. As COVID-19 was taking hold of America, the head of Ventec Life Systems quickly began increasing production at the company’s facilities in Bothell, Wash.

Ventec and GM, 2 months later: How a startup took on the ventilator shortage, and where it stands now

But he knew it wouldn’t be enough. He reached out to General Motors in mid-March to see how the two might partner to meet escalating demand. Health officials feared shortages would force them to make difficult decisions about which patients would have access to the potentially life-saving devices and which would not.

At the time, Kiple, who is 35, had been chief executive of the Seattle-area company for a little more than a year.

“We really felt the weight of the world on our shoulders,” Kiple said. Healthcare workers, whom he calls the real heroes, urgently needed their ventilators. “There weren’t a lot of options, and we could fill that void.”

Within a little more than five months, Ventec and GM shipped 30,000 ventilators. With their combined forces, the companies were making a ventilator every seven minutes.

Kiple said Ventec was able to rise to the occasion because it had a strong team and the culture of a scrappy, growing startup.

“We were used to thinking in terms of the impossible,” he said. “In this case it wasn’t so much age or experience [that drove success]. It was a team that came together with a vision.”

The experience left Kiple with some lessons learned for other leaders:

  • Pause to reflect. An intense effort requires so much decision-making and input from many parties. Take a break to slow down and think strategically.
  • Keep a positive, confident attitude and share that with your team.
  • Empower your team to make decisions and be ready to shift from speaking to listening.

Before COVID hit, Ventec was already growing its business in the medical device market. In January, the company raised $20 million in a Series E round. At the time it had 120 employees, but has grown to nearly 1,000. The business, which started in 2013, is nearly 5,000% revenue growth this year.

Much like COVID-19, the dynamics of ventilation are evolving rapidly. A handful of doctors are questioning whether intubation using a ventilator is the best approach for COVID-19 patients. The debate hinges on discrepancies between the symptoms of COVID-19 and a condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), in which patients are often intubated.

Kiple looks forward to a time when COVID-driven demand simmers down and he can focus again on Ventec’s leading product, a device that he calls “a respiratory system in a box” that aids people who are on ventilators for the rest of their lives.

“I hope 2021 will bring a vacation,” he said. “Not just for me, but for the whole team.”

We caught up with Kiple for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Current location: Seattle

Computer types: MacBook Pro, iPad Pro

Mobile devices: iPhone 11 Pro, Apple Watch

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: Dropbox to manage my personal life. DocuSign to streamline approvals. PDF Pro to send finished documents. Google Suite to manage collaborative projects at work.

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? My workspace is designed to bring multiple key team members together to solve problems. My office includes my desk and computer, white board, conference table with a large TV, and multiple open desks for members of the leadership team to use when we are brainstorming and solving problems.

Our work is complex and key decisions cannot be made in silos. Our best decisions are made working with each of us having a dedicated space to co-work. I created a workspace to bring teams together.

Kiple writes a thank you message on April 16, 2020 to healthcare professionals who received the first shipment of Ventec ventilators from the GM manufacturing facility in Kokomo, Ind. (GM Photo / AJ Mast)

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? In our slowest year at Ventec, we had 100% revenue growth. This year we will approach 5,000% revenue growth. We didn’t get here by working regular hours and thinking inside the box. We had plans and we adapted. We willed our growth to happen by capturing opportunities and making thoughtful decisions quickly.

The best advice to grow a startup is to work with an amazing team that is 100% committed to the mission, that you enjoy working work, and trust explicitly. Your team makes the long, hard days forgettable and they make it possible to capture the big opportunities when they arise. Everything else in your day is second to having the right team.

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? LinkedIn. I enjoy following friends’ careers and monitoring online discussions. More importantly, LinkedIn helps inform me of people I need to know and facilitates new introductions.

In March, as the COVID pandemic swept the world, I used LinkedIn to rapidly connect to a new network of people that were shaping the global pandemic response. For example, I connected with the StopTheSpread leadership team via a cold InMail message on LinkedIn. In the span of several hours, that InMail message led to introductions to the executive team at GM. At the end of the day we had developed the partnership between Ventec Life Systems and GM to rapidly produce critical care ventilators within weeks.

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? Hundreds. I will need the weekend to catch-up.

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? 34 scheduled meetings. I use scheduled meetings to organize the company, drive cross-functional decisions, and to meet with customers.

However, my best information comes from unscheduled discussions. I find an impromptu walk through the office to learn what all members of the team at every level are thinking and dealing with is critical to understanding complex problems and driving informed decisions. My favorite conversations come through my daily walks through the R&D department to brainstorm ideas and through manufacturing to understand the challenges to meeting our shipping deadlines. I learn something new every day and can understand our challenges first hand.

Kiple in a Hawaiian moonscape pre-COVID. (Photo courtesy of Kiple)

How do you run meetings? I run our executive team meeting. I take notes each week and review the notes in advance of the meeting to prepare. I try to use these meetings to listen and to drive key decisions. All other meetings I appoint a team leader to drive the meeting and I try to meet with that team leader ahead of the meeting each week.

Everyday work uniform? Navy blue dress pants and blue button-down shirt.

How do you make time for family? 2020 has been a terrible year to stay connected to family and friends. I have spent the majority of this year at our office in Bothell or Kokomo, Ind. Our team made it our mission that every medical professional would have access to a critical care ventilator so they would not have to choose which patients have access to life-saving technology.

As we enter 2021, I hope to prioritize family and reconnect with my friends.

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Currently, my best stress reliever is hiking on the weekends. As soon as adventure travel resumes, I look forward to visiting new places to explore new cultures again. I have tremendously missed world travel in 2020.

What are you listening to? I regularly listen to three podcasts: “How I Built This,” “Planet Money” and “The Daily.” As for music, I am listening to Matchbox Twenty and film score composer Hans Zimmer Essentials on Apple Music. Matchbox Twenty has been a staple since my childhood and Zimmer helps me work late into the night.

Kiple, left, with Vice President Mike Pence and GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra, right, on a tour the GM manufacturing facility in Kokomo. (GM Photo / AJ Mast)

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? I start the day with the Financial Times, Washington Post, New York Times and Bloomberg. I end the day with Flipboard, SmartNews and Apple News.

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? I am currently reading “100 Decisive Battles of All Time” by Paul Davis. It is amazing how one moment in time can change the course of history and propel civilizations forward or backward. I think our lives are very much the same. We have a collection of a few moments and key decisions that dramatically impact our lives and shape our trajectory.

Night owl or early riser? Night owl. I would work all night and never fall asleep if it was possible. However, living on the West Coast I have learned to embrace mornings to stay ahead. That said, it is best for everyone that I am well caffeinated prior to my first meeting.

Where do you get your best ideas? My best ideas come from spending time with patients and their care partners. I have to understand their life to understand how our team can drive innovation to change their lives for the better. Great innovation does not happen in the office — it happens when you understand the real world.

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? Individuals that make time for regular learning. Bill Gates is constantly learning through books and people. Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz never lost focus on the customer experience. Nebraska-natives and Berkshire Hathaway executives Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger’s philosophy on long-term thinking provide insight into building successful companies. Peter Kaufman at Glenair, a company manufacturing aerospace components, has amazing philosophies into building and retaining talented teams.

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