PEORIA — A colleague’s frightening tale inspired medtech entrepreneur Kim Blickenstaff to take on the challenge of diabetic management.
“His granddaughter had diabetes, and he saw the burden it put on his daughter and her husband,” said Blickenstaff during a recent interview at his office in the old Pabst building in Peoria Heights. “He and his wife learned how to use an insulin pump so his kids could get a weekend away from diabetes ... and the first weekend they ever took care of their granddaughter she went so high she had to go to the hospital. So Dick felt the pain and lack of control in almost killing his granddaughter, and he was looking around for technologies that could make the situation better.”
That conversation with fellow medtech industry executive Dick Allen eventually led to Blickenstaff becoming CEO of a startup company named Tandem Diabetes Care, Inc. in 2007. The company’s first invention, the t:slim insulin pump with intuitive controls similar to those on an iPhone, received FDA approval in 2011.
Other innovations followed, and late this year, Control IQ, a ground-breaking new program for the t:slim, will likely get FDA approval and hit the market. The program, with its proprietary algorithm to predict where insulin levels will be 30 minutes ahead of time, has already gotten good reviews from participants in a study funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in the New England Journal of Medicine at the end of October.
“The results in that study were remarkable,” said Blickenstaff. “The user satisfaction scores were nearly perfect on trust, confidence and satisfaction. So that’s a key hurdle to overcome with diabetics, because compliance is the hardest thing, and if you make it simple — the system is doing all this stuff and they come to rely on it — then you’ve got something.”
The fact the program keeps insulin levels steady overnight led users to trust it almost immediately, said Blickenstaff.
“Patients said after the first night, when they didn’t go low, that’s when they knew it was working,” he said. “At night and while exercising are the two hardest times to stay in control, and this puts them in control almost immediately.”
As Blickenstaff talks about Tandem’s latest breakthrough, it’s clear he still thoroughly enjoys his first career, even as he is spending more and more time as a real estate developer in central Illinois. The Spring Bay native still lives part time in San Diego, where Tandem is located. He stepped down as CEO in March, and has assumed the role of executive chairman of the board of directors.
“I handed it off, but it’s not quite retirement,” said Blickenstaff. “I’m still on calls with management on all the important things. I’m still very active in it.”
Blickenstaff’s journey into a medtech career began in the early 1970s at Loyola University, where he originally went to study law. He changed his mind when he saw how unhappy the law students were.
“I saw the lawyers in misery, and I saw the business people happy as clams,” he said. “Law school is kind of an individual effort, with an ‘I win, you lose’ mentality. It’s very competitive, but in business school it’s all very team oriented, trying to problem solve. I don’t like to win, I like to see a whole group of people succeed.”
After earning a business degree, Blickenstaff took a job at Baxter International Inc. in Chicago with the goal of learning all aspects of the health care innovation business.
“One of the things I did in my career was to make a bunch of lateral moves. I went from finance to marketing, marketing to sales. My whole career strategy was learning all the different roles,” said Blickenstaff. “So at the age of 36, me and three scientists started a company and I was CEO without ever having been a VP.”
In 1988, Blickenstaff co-founded Biosite Inc., a company that developed medical diagnostic products. When the company was acquired by Inverness Medical Innovations for $1.8 billion in 2007, Blickenstaff was free to take the helm at Tandem.
Blickenstaff has made a great deal of money in the medtech industry, but he’s also enjoyed developing devices to improve people’s lives and the team effort that requires. About 10 years ago, when the death of his father brought Blickenstaff home more often to deal with the estate, he began to see an opportunity to build something here, with the ultimate goal of helping the community.
“I like it here. I felt the pain of the decline. I saw the strikes and the battle at Caterpillar, then the Japanese competition with autos and tractors and layoffs. It just started this downward spiral of hopelessness. And now I come back here and I see hope, and I think with what I’ve done I can make an impact here,” he said.
Blickenstaff has made a big splash in recent years by purchasing a number of endangered properties with plans to make them into gathering spots the community could once again be proud of. But his plans don’t end with real estate. Blickenstaff has also set his eye on growing Peoria’s fledgling medtech industry.
“I’m trying to teach people how to start companies, because I think we have the health care environment to do it,” he said. “I want to teach people how to do it because I have credibility in the investment community, so if I’m here, people are gonna get interested, too.”
Blickenstaff sees financial potential for medical innovations happening in Peoria.
“We have a tech environment, but nobody’s ever started a company and taken it public,” he said. “Let me tell you the fun of actually getting something public. All my employees are shareholders, so suddenly they have net worth — I can’t tell you how many millionaires we now have at Tandem. And then people in the community see it on the stock market, and they buy stock, and they make money on the stock, and then suddenly you are lifting up the community in multiple ways.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.