Risk, rigour & hard work: the mix that ensured a high school dropout ascended to the C-Suite

Stephen Snowdy

Stephen Snowdy, CEO of Visioneering Technologies

If Dr Stephen Snowdy had listened to the sceptics who told him “it can’t – or shouldn’t – be done”, he wouldn’t have made the leap from being a high school dropout to being the CEO of Visioneering Technologies (VTI), a US-based, ASX-listed contact lense maker.

The venture capitalist and former US Navy serviceman spoke to Dynamic Business about his involvement with VTI, his interest in – and the challenges faced by – early stage medical companies and what he has accomplished by mixing “risk, rigour and hard work”.

DB: How did the company get started?

Snowdy: Dr. Richard Griffith – an optometrist in Florida – conceived, patented, and gave birth to Visioneering’s optical designs. As an optometrist, he was frustrated with the poor performance of the lenses available for treatment of presbyopia (the age-related loss of ability to see near objects). Using his training and experience from a previous career in Aerospace Engineering, he set out to develop a clinically more effective and simpler optical method to treat presbyopia – and he succeeded.

We believe our NaturalVue MF contact lenses represent one of the most significant innovations in the optical design of multifocal contact lenses in over 20 years. The revolutionary optical design overcomes some of the major challenges associated with several existing presbyopia solutions by providing superior near, intermediate, and distance vision, and it is easy for eye care professionals to fit to their patients.

DB: How did you get involved with VTI?

Snowdy: After dropping out of high school to work with my dad, I joined the US Navy Special Forces, which required me to obtain a certificate of high school equivalency, sparking an interest in college. After moving on to study chemistry, I undertook both a PHD in Neurobiology and an MBA in finance, earning both qualifications simultaneously. From there, I started work at MB Venture Partners, which is a medical sciences venture capital firm.

I encountered Dr. Griffith and his technology during one of the firm’s mentoring programs, which connected venture capital investors with inventors to help them position their technologies for raising capital. I have always had a fascination with the nervous system, which is the most complex and powerful system in our bodies, and loved the way Dr Griffith’s technology worked with the brain to revolutionize vision correction In 2008, after much diligence work, I led the Company’s first institutional venture round, bringing in Charter Life Sciences as a co-lead. I served as the chairman of Visioneering’s board until mid-2013, when I became the company’s CEO.

DB: What mindset helped you become VTI’s CEO?  

Snowdy: The most important principle I employ in everything I do is rigour – rigour in thought, rigour in process, and rigour in personal and intellectual integrity. I was a high-school dropout, and so entered the military, and subsequently entered college academically well behind my peers.

Being so far behind, and having no study habits necessitated an approach to learning that was extremely thorough and rigorous. This involved being very aware of what I didn’t know or what wasn’t making sense and attacking it. I’ve applied this approach to everything I do and every decision I lead.

Another principle I employ is to be very sceptical when someone says something cannot be done. Most of my major accomplishments, including many of the major accomplishments at Visioneering started with someone saying “it couldn’t be done”. For example, as a high school dropout, I was told that I couldn’t go to college. When I wanted to simultaneously earn a PhD and MBA, I was told that it couldn’t – and shouldn’t – be done (it is now common practice). When I performed my diligence on the Visioneering design, experts told me the design would never work (but adding that if it did work, it would be huge!).

Further, we were told that it is not possible to build a contact lens company from scratch; that we would never receive our FDA clearance, and so on and so on…yet each time, we succeeded.

Accomplishment is a mixture of risk, rigour, and hard work. I feel that risk aversion, or only attempting to do what others think is easy to do, results in only incremental progress.  Rigour comes into play when one needs to understand and dimensionalize the risks.

DB: What success has VTI seen under your leadership?

Snowdy: At VTI we have an incredible team of experts in contact lens design and manufacturing, regulatory affairs, finance, and sales and marketing. I am unable to take credit for what we have accomplished as a team at VTI. As a team, we have seen the company through initial product design and iteration, clinical trials, FDA clearance and inspections, building of quality systems, establishment of large-scale manufacturing, launch of a sales organization, tens of millions of dollars in fundraising, and an IPO. [Editor’s note: VTI listed on the ASX in March after raising A$33.3 million following the close of its IPO]

In my opinion, the key elements to these successes, and the corporate culture that is in common to everyone in our Company are intellectual rigour, high tolerance for risk and ambiguity, dogged perseverance, honesty, and deep appreciation of the uniqueness and contributions of others.

DB: You’ve led a few medical startups – what’s the appeal?   

Snowdy: The really fun part of startups is building something from ground up; taking a concept in someone’s head or scrawled on the back of a napkin, through to design, patenting, clinical trials, regulatory clearances, production, and eventual sales and distribution. In a large company, a person is generally involved in only one of these areas. In a startup, everyone is involved in everything. Building a medical science company is incredibly complex, and regardless of position, every employee is directly involved in and accountable for the decisions, failures, and successes. The startup world also attracts incredibly bright people who are a blast to work with.

DB: What unique challenges do medical startups face?

Snowdy: The biggest challenges are securing funding and finding talent. Venture capital for early stage medical companies is anemic compared to past years. Also, finding intelligent people with a high tolerance for ambiguity that can tolerate financial risk is very difficult. Of course, these challenges layer onto the usual technology, regulatory, and competitive risks, but the real bottlenecks are money and people’s tolerance of the risks inherent in the startup and entrepreneurial worlds.

DB: What about the US makes it an ideal HQ for VTI?

Snowdy: The US is the largest contact lens market in the world (worth $5.4billion each year), with a massive reservoir of people experienced in the design, manufacture, and sale of contact lenses. That makes market entry and recruitment of talent much easier than it would have been elsewhere. The US also has a very mature, albeit diminished, private equity environment, which is critical to getting a medical company from founding to success.

DB: Looking ahead, what do you have planned for VTI?

Snowdy: Rocket-like growth into an internationally recognised contact lens brand, known for aggressive innovation, and for its support of eye care professionals.