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Connect, December 2011 - Alumni: Steve Burrill - transforming health care - EY - United States

G. Steven BurrillHealth care in the digital age

  G. Steven Burrill  
  Current position:
Founder and CEO, Burrill & Company
  Last EY office:
San Francisco, California, and New York, New York
  Born in:
Madison, Wisconsin
  Board/community involvement:
Director at Catalyst Biosciences, Depomed, NewBridge, Novadaq Proventys, Targacept and XDx; Chairman of the San Francisco Mayor's Biotech Advisory Committee (MAYBAC); founding supporter of the National Health Museum; member of the Strategy and Policy Council at the MIT Center for Biomedical Innovation
  Career highlights:
2011 Scrip Intelligence lifetime achievement award; 2011 Breath of Life award from the Northern California Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation; recipient of the BayBio Pantheon 2008 DiNA lifetime achievement award for worldwide biotech leadership; recipient of the prestigious Scientific American 50 award in 2002.
  Most recent read:
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

The day of the one-minute diagnosis is not far away. Thanks to advances in molecular biology and digital media, it will be possible for you to cough or leave a drop of blood on your cell phone and receive a diagnosis from your doctor seconds later.

As EY alumnus Steve Burrill explains, a technology known as microfluidics will make this possible. Connect caught up with Burrill as he was preparing for his firm's annual conference on the future of personalized medicine.

My grandfather was the first CPA in the state of Wisconsin, and my father and I followed in his footsteps. But to forge my own path, I decided to leave for San Francisco after graduation. That's when I joined Ernst & Young LLP, where I stayed for 28 years.

It was a formative experience. Many lessons from that time are integral to the way I run my business today. For example, at Ernst & Young there was a great emphasis on team-building. I recognized early on that a cohesive team is far stronger than the strongest individual in the group.

Beyond teamwork, I learned that to be successful, you must take care of your people.

I was fortunate to work in the Bay Area at a pivotal moment for the technology industry. At the same time, a partner named Joe Sullivan (deceased) helped introduce me to the venture capital community and entrusted me, very early in my career, with significant client responsibilities.

I also learned the importance of maintaining a network of relationships in building market share and profitability. So, as I worked through a client audit, I was also learning how business really worked — whether it was a trucking company or a manufacturer of chip arrays.

EY helped me develop the desire to question and learn from the answers. Those skills of inquiry and the ability to differentiate fact from fiction became very helpful to me in everything I have done since founding my company in 1994.

Transforming power

I love my work and can't wait to get to the office. I got my Starbucks to open at 3:30 in the morning so I could get a coffee on the way to the office by 4:00 a.m. each day. I am always excited to be a part of the life sciences industry.

We are approaching a moment when digital health or wireless health will transform health care. For example, you will speak to your doctor on your wireless phone; he'll have you cough into the phone, will advise you on your diagnosis and an overnight delivery truck will be on its way delivering the medicine you need.

We're not quite there yet, but we are moving to this virtual world very fast. Microfluidics technology, improved sensors and developing wireless infrastructure will make this application a reality. And when you consider that six billion people in the world have cell phones, the concept of wireless health is very compelling.

The final frontier

Health care is the last frontier that's bringing new technology to solve common problems. One day, your doctor will insert a microfluidics chip under your skin. After that, you will get up in the morning and check whether your cholesterol or your blood pressure is too high or check any type of standard health indicator. This is one example of how technology is altering the nature of medicine — from one size fits all to the world of personalized medicine.

Life sciences companies are also working on technologies to support predictive medicine. For example, we will be able not only to predict that you're going to get Alzheimer's or osteoporosis, but we will also have the ability to preempt those conditions or their severity.

Advances in life sciences are instrumental in transforming our dysfunctional sickness care system into a functional wellness care system. And technology will play an important role in the process. So it's an exciting time for everyone concerned about the cost and quality of health care.

Technology is the only hope to bring the health care costs down in this country. For example, 55% of the drugs used in the US don't work for the patients they're prescribed for. There are massive losses due to ineffective treatment or non-treatment.

But if you can actually do the right thing for the right patient at the right time, you can have a much more efficient health care system.

Still climbing

As an entrepreneur, I am sometimes asked for advice by others wanting to start their own venture. I always say, if you have a passion to do something, go do it. That passion will make you successful.

Don't wait until you've worked out all the details. I did not have a business plan starting out, and I don't have one today. Most people look at our company and consider us moderately successful. But from my entrepreneurial perspective, we have many challenges to conquer and much to accomplish.

The “accountant’s entrepreneur”: high-tech venture capitalist and alumnus Steve Burrill, left, with Lee Dutra, Managing Partner of the Ernst & Young LLP San Francisco office.

More about Steve Burrill: the accountant’s entrepreneur

By all independent measures, EY is the undisputed world leader in advising, guiding and recognizing entrepreneurs. But it took vision and leadership to get us there. One of the individuals most responsible for pushing the firm in that direction is Steve Burrill.

Early in his career at EY, Burrill had the opportunity to work with many high-tech, high-growth and biotech clients. As a result, he came to see firsthand the struggle that many of these companies had securing capital.

So, as an auditor, he worked “to devise a number of devices that the biotech life sciences industry and high-tech industry used to create capital.” He also introduced the radical (at the time) concept of a completely different staffing and pricing model for these potential high-growth companies: “We needed our most senior professionals working with the people least able to pay,” Burrill says. “So we kind of inverted the pyramid.”

As a result, by the late 1970s, EY had “differentiated itself” from the other then-Big Eight through the creation of an Emerging Business practice.

But Burrill wasn’t done. Convinced that it was easier to “get involved with the guys who were growing fast” rather than to try to persuade the big Fortune 500 firms to switch auditors, Burrill continued pushing into hot new markets. He recalls a significantly more senior coworker questioning him about why he was so excited about the whole life sciences segment.

“And I looked at him, as a young guy, and explained, ‘This may not be important in your career, but it’s going to be important in mine.’ And I went home that night and thought I was going to be fired.” Instead, in a few years, Burrill would find himself co-chairing the US firm’s high-tech, high-growth practice, a position he held until retiring in 1994 to start his current life sciences/venture capital and merchant banking firm.

In the years since Burrill left, EY has continued its focus on entrepreneurs. The practice Burrill helped build is now called Strategic Growth Markets, a unified practice that today provides the full spectrum of services to first-mover sectors such as biotechnology, technology and cleantech.

Outside of EY, in 2002, Burrill was named one of the Scientific American 50 for his contributions to biotechnology. He joined the magazine’s advisory board in 2009. .

December 2011

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