Using capitalism for good
Scott Augustine, M.D., has built a career out of being skeptical.
“I question most things,” says Augustine (Class of 1979). “Instead of trying to do what everybody’s always done, what’s a better way of doing this?”
All of that questioning has made Augustine, a self-described “philosophical heretic,” a successful inventor and entrepreneur. Now founder and CEO of Augustine Biomedical + Design, Augustine holds about 150 patents. There’s not enough room in the entry space of his Eden Prairie office building — vaulted ceilings and all — to display the full collection of patent plaques.
But that’s OK with Augustine. He’d rather his company be little than big. In fact, he left his first company, Augustine Medical Inc., in 2003, partly because it got too big and he didn’t really like being in charge. (He sold the company to Citigroup Venture Capital in 2004.)
Augustine Biomedical + Design now employs about 25 people, including Augustine’s wife, Susan, two of their three sons, and many of the best thinkers from his first company, he says.
“I am fortunate in that I have been able to surround myself with really good people,” he says. “That’s what enables you to do whatever you want to do. When you’re working by yourself, you don’t get very far.”
Finding a better way
Augustine says he has been a tinkerer his whole life. When he decided to become a doctor, he had planned to quit tinkering and focus on medicine.
But as he completed his anesthesiology residency in the U.S. Navy, he found himself using equipment that simply didn’t work.
“It turned on and off just fine, but it didn’t actually do what it was supposed to do,” he says.
Patient warming devices fit in this category. When he was in medical training, Augustine says, very little was known about patients being cold during surgery. Doctors knew that patients got cold, but many of them — including Augustine — thought patients didn’t remember it.
But one evening he got cornered at a party and berated about how uncomfortable it was to wake up freezing and with chattering teeth.
So Augustine started looking for a better way. Soon he had invented the Bair Hugger,® a special heated blanket used to keep people warm during surgery.
As an added benefit, warming helps to prevent unintended hypothermia, which, doctors now know, increases a patient’s risk of wound infection and even death after surgery.
Today warming is a standard practice in operating rooms throughout the world.
“It’s a real change in practice,” Augustine says. “I’m proud of that.”
Beneficiaries of business success
In addition to the Bair Hugger,® Augustine has developed devices to address chronic wound care, allergy and asthma, core temperature measurement, and line infections, among others.
So original were these products that Inc. magazine in 2002 named Augustine Medical Inc. the most innovative small company in America.
Augustine’s success inspires him to help others. He and his wife have created the Scott D. and Susan D. Augustine Biomedical Engineering Research Fellowship to support University of Minnesota medical students who are interested in inventing as well (see article about scholarship winner Robin Brusen). They also have started a nonprofit called Peace House Africa to house and educate orphans in Tanzania (see sidebar).
“What I’m trying to do is blend capitalism with philanthropy,” he says.
To recognize his many achievements, the University presented Augustine with its prestigious Outstanding Achievement Award on October 19.
Augustine says he’s just happy to be making a difference. He loved practicing medicine, but he found something he loved more when he fell into biomedical engineering. And he has no regrets about making the switch.
“When you practice, you help one person at a time. And it feels good. But what I do now — I don’t know the patients, and I don’t actually see who the product is helping — but it gets leveraged by millions,” he says. “So that really can make you feel good.”
By Nicole Endres, managing editor