Frank Baylis graduated from the University of Waterloo with a degree in Electrical Engineering. Soon after graduating, he joined his mother, Gloria Baylis, to help her build the Baylis Medical brand and grow it into a global leader in the conception, development, production, and distribution of medical products. He served as a Liberal Member of Parliament for the federal riding of Pierrefonds-Dollard from 2015 to 2019. Now, Frank oversees Baylis Medical’s spine business branch and is the Executive Chairman of Baylis Medical’s Board of Directors. The interview is brought to you by Malak Ali and Meera Chopra.
BioTEC: What kinds of problems do products at Baylis solve?
Frank: We specialize in minimally invasive cardiology and spinal nerve products. On the cardiology side, we make products that create a little hole in the septum of the heart to enable interventional operations on the left side of the heart. On the spinal nerve side, we make products that treat chronic back pain.
Before the 1950s doctors did not do surgeries on the heart because it was believed that the risk to the patient was too high. However, over time, many technologies have been developed to perform life-saving heart procedures, up to and including complete heart transplants. However, these open-heart surgeries are incredibly invasive, and it can take patients up to six months to recover from such procedures. This led doctors to look for new, less invasive ways to treat the heart. These new ways are called interventional procedures, where the blood vessels of the body are used as highways to access the heart. Doctors use catheters, (long plastic tubes) that are placed through the blood vessels to go into the heart and fix problems without the need for open-heart surgeries.
The work that we do at Baylis Medical is focused on these types of interventional cardiology procedures. Specifically, we make tools that allow doctors to cross the septum of the heart. The septum is a wall in the heart that separates the right side from the left side. By crossing the septum, the doctor can fix problems that are located on the left side of the heart.
In the spinal nerve part of our business, we manufacture products that help manage back pain. This is done by treating nerves that send pain signals and that can’t be silenced. The first system does this for people with chronic back pain. We ultimately sold this business to the healthcare division of Kimberly-Clark. The second system, which was bought by Medtronic, does this for back pain due to bone cancer. Neither fixes the back, but the pain is significantly reduced, eliminating the need for intensive drugs and improving patient quality of life.
BioTEC: Can you tell us a little more about your career? How did you get Baylis Medical to where it is now?
Frank: The Business was started by my mother, Gloria Baylis. While I was studying at the University of Waterloo, she began importing and reselling specialized medical products from France to treat brain aneurysms. When I graduated in 1986, I wanted to join her in building the business, but she encouraged me to get some first-hand medical device experience first. So I joined Laborie Medical and worked on manufacturing products for urodynamic testing.
I later joined my mother in 1989 to continue expanding the business. Over the years, we shifted from an importer and reseller to a developer and manufacturer of medical devices. Today we export our products around the world.
Although I specialized in engineering and medical technology early on in my career, I always had a strong interest in politics. Back in 2013 when Justin Trudeau was first running for Prime Minister, I decided to put my name forward to be a Member of Parliament (MP). I was fortunate to win for the riding of Pierrefonds-Dollard and served as an MP for four years.
I remained involved in the business while I served as MP, and after my four years, I chose to return full-time. It’s becoming less common to stay in one field throughout your entire career, and with a solid education, it’s possible to explore interests in different areas and disciplines throughout your career.
BioTEC: What are some of the toughest challenges that you’ve faced throughout your career? How did you overcome them?
Frank: One of our toughest moments came when we were still a small company. We identified a need to treat pulmonary atresia – a defect in the heart of newborn babies, where the pulmonary valve does not open after birth. We had developed a device consisting of a radio frequency generator and a very small wire that a doctor can thread through a blood vessel to open the valve. This was our first minimally invasive cardiology device. However, when we tested the system, the device created an electrical anomaly in the heart that posed a serious threat to the baby.
It felt like we had hit a brick wall, and for a couple of days, my business partner and I were devastated.
But we returned to the drawing board and eventually found a way to open the valve without affecting the electrical activity of the heart. We are proud that this life-saving device is used around the world to save babies born with this heart defect.
There will be moments when you feel like you’ve lost everything, or you’ve hit a roadblock you can’t overcome. It’s okay to have those moments, but you have to stand up, dust yourself off, and continue moving forward. Maintaining that perseverance and determination is key to overcoming these sorts of challenges.
BioTEC: What is a moment you look back on that motivated you to continue through the tough times?
Frank: A moment that stands out was early on when our device to combat pulmonary atresia wasn’t being used very often yet. We told the doctors “look, if there’s a baby that is born with this defect, call us and we will bring the supplies necessary for the procedure”. We would keep a small overnight suitcase in our office packed and ready to go in the event that we received such a call. One time, I flew out to a hospital in the USA to support a doctor with his case. The case went very well and the baby’s valve was opened. After the case, the doctor brought me to meet the parents who were nervously waiting for the results. This was not normal as doctors do not normally bring the technical staff to meet the family. You can imagine the tension in the waiting room as the parents and grandparents wanted to hear how the case went. The doctor said, “The procedure went well and your baby is fine. I want you to thank this engineer, he brought everything I needed to do this”. At that moment, you could feel the tension released in the room and the joy of the family. At that moment I felt very proud.
BioTEC: What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of having a largely publicly-funded healthcare system in Canada, specifically as it relates to medical devices?
Frank: The Canadian healthcare system has both positives and negatives. The fact is that the government controls everything that goes into a hospital, and we spend an awful lot of money on health care. On one hand, this is an opportunity to stimulate economic growth and leverage Canadian engineering talent, since the government can use companies like Baylis Medical as suppliers for our hospitals. On the other hand, the government is the only buyer; if they are not interested, Canadian-based companies may be forced to find their first buyer in the US or in Europe where there are both public and private buyers.
In general, as a country, we should play to the system’s strengths by encouraging healthcare systems and industry to work hand-in-hand to ensure that more gets done within our borders.
BioTEC: What advice would you give to university students who are considering a career in the medical device space?
Frank: I think it’s a wonderful field, and I’ve enjoyed my work in it over the years. There is a unique opportunity to impact people’s lives, and that’s extremely rewarding. The rate at which the field is growing also makes it a great place to be. Think about the rate of change in technology for cell phones and computers – the same thing has happened for medical devices such as pacemakers and is continuing to happen for many medical technologies.
A great way to identify what you want to do is to try many different things and explore various industries throughout your career. Start by building experience, just as my mother told me, and do your best to learn as much as possible. It is as important to learn what you don’t enjoy as much as what you do. Co-op programs at the University of Waterloo and other schools are a great way to do this.
BioTEC: What advice would you give to someone who is considering a career pivot or career change?
Frank: When you’re younger, it is easier to pivot in your career than if you are married, have children, a house, and a mortgage. People tend to make big pivots either before they settle into a lot of expenses or after they’ve paid them off. My first pivot was leaving Laborie Medical where I had a great salary and a stable job to chase my dream of building Baylis Medical. My second pivot was after I hit 50. My children had been taken care of and my career was going well, so I was able to take a chance and run for political office.
It’s easy for people to say you can do anything you want, but you need to be cognizant of the fact that at some point in your life you’ll have a lot more than just your career going on.