How many people in the world have the satisfaction of knowing that their job really makes a difference? That’s the question Balasundaram Lavan asked himself one day a couple of years ago. The answer (as we all know) is “not very many.” Balasundaram decided that he was going to quit his job in finance and join those brave few by creating Pace4Life, a not-for-profit medical startup that is working toward re-planting used pacemakers in impoverished individuals.
While Pace4Life is not your traditional startup – there are no plans for a multi-million dollar buyout from Google, nor is Balasundaram frantically searching for VCs to get behind his vision – I wanted to share what he’s doing with you all because he’s an excellent example of how the startup structure and ecosystem can be used to truly change the world. After all, one of the things that draws founders to create a startup is the desire to “disrupt” and industry and create something that will make change, right? Pace4Life could not be a better example of exactly that ideal.
I sat down with Balasundaram recently and had a great chat with him about the path that led him from a Master’s in chemistry to the financial world to lobbying for the reuse of pacemakers. It’s quite the story, so keep reading to find out how one dude is going to disrupt the medical industry.
What is Pace4Life?
Pace4Life, simply, is a not-for-profit that reuses pacemakers for impoverished individuals in the developing world. We take pacemakers when they’re discarded when people die, test them, sterilize them, and re-implant them.
Do people get creeped out by that?
Some people get excited, some people get creeped out. I think I fall in the middle.
What’s the biggest impact you see Pace4Life making?
Well, people with a pacemaker pretty much lead a normal life. The thing is, in the developing world where the mother or father could be the breadwinner, if they have a bad heart then their family really suffers. If you give them a new pacemaker, you give them a new lease on life and you affect not just one person, but a whole bunch of people. That’s where the real impact of the story is.
What was the inspiration for getting it going?
I think really just the fact that I could make a real difference.
You don’t have any family history of heart disease or anything like that?
No, no, it was just… I randomly knew that pacemakers historically had radioactive materials in them so I was surprised that they were just sitting there in funeral parlors. That interested me from a science perspective, so I started Googling it.
That’s when I stumbled across University of Michigan, who is now one of my partners. They’d been doing extensive research for three years into the reuse of pacemakers. At Startup Weekend we got in contact with them and we’re now partners, by which I mean we’re on both sides of the world and trying to do this together.
Have you started actually doing it? What stage are you at now?
We’re hoping to start implantation but they’re going to be with brand new pacemakers that are donated to us from one of the four largest pacemaker factories in the world.
We’re getting FDA approval in the US for re-implantation; they’re vetting our sterilization. We sent it to them once before and they had a few issues they wanted us to address so we re-submitted.
You mentioned that it’s you and the University of Michigan. Who else is involved?
I’ve got a legal firm who gives me informal advice, a physiologist from the University of Manchester who’s been helping and giving advice as well. We should hopefully be getting the Leed’s Teaching Hospital on board as well, so that would be the UK equivalent of the University of Michigan.
That allows us to get donations from the pacemaker manufacturers in the UK.
Oh, so it’s not just recycled pacemakers. It will be donated new ones as well.
Exactly. The thing about pacemakers is, yes, you can reuse it but the thing you do need to do is buy new leads because they can’t be recycled. One end goes into the pacemaker and the other goes into the ventricles to stimulate them.
It’s going to be a combination of both. Even if we have to start with new ones, it’s a good way to get into a country and also to get the Ministry of Health on our side; to get the letter of approval for the reused pacemakers.
Where are you looking to operate?
Well, Africa and Asia would be the obvious targets but it’s limited by the understanding that each country has the expertise, the facilities, and whether we can get a letter of consent from the relevant Ministry of Health.
So you wouldn’t bring in doctors?
Long term you don’t want to bring in doctors because it’s quite expensive. You can get a lot more bang for your buck if you initially set things up and establish it or work with charities that already have the organization.
Groups like Doctor’s Without Borders.
Yeah, there’s them and groups like the Rotary Club and various other charities.
For example, I just found a charity in the UK called Healing Little Hearts. They do open heart surgery for kids. They were interested in potentially doing implantations with pacemakers so we’re going to see if we can do a partnership with them.
Why’d you decide to quit your job and start Pace4Life?
Generally I was thinking, “What the hell am I doing? I should probably just go back to city life, having a desk job.” I was thinking that a desk job was probably a way because I like structure.
But then I was also thinking that I actually don’t like structure; I like variety. Structure almost allows me to have the variety in my life.
Then I went back to London for about two weeks and I realized if I went back to a desk job, I’d only quit again anyway.
And what was your background? What did you do before?
I studied chemistry in university; got a Master’s in chemistry. Then I went straight into investment banking.
How long were you in finance?
Twelve plus years.
It seems like finance used to be where the driven, A-type people went, and then the economy went to shit, right? So I feel like we’re seeing a lot of those personality types who would have gone into finance go into the startup world. Do you see that at all?
Possibly. It’s hard for me to say because maybe I’m not at that age; I’m 35. I think right now kids are already seeing at an early age that maybe their parents are entrepreneurs or are more willing to see them open their own business. It’s come a full circle.
My parents came over to England in the early ‘70s. They were very typical immigrant parents: study hard, have a decent degree, go and get a stable job, never quit your job. But, as I always like to say, I had my first midlife crisis at 27. It’s good to get them out of the way, you know, start early.
So yeah, I did that then and I think it opened my mind up to other opportunities, to really thinking about moving jobs. I can always get a job; that’s not a problem.
After I quit my job I took about a year off. I went from investment banking direct, traveled a bit, played golf, watched TV, did random stuff like a fishmongering course. As you do. (Laughter) Why not? It was free! It’s amazing what you can blag yourself onto when you’re penniless.
After that I got a job doing managing consultancy for investment bank. Back into the financial industry, did that for five or six years, and then started freelancing because I was fed up with the corporate world. I thought I would freelance to fund a lifestyle: do a project for five or six months or whatever and then use that money to take some time off.
I finished my first project and my friend turned around and was like, “You’ve got nothing to do; you’re a bum. Come to Startup Weekend.”
A week later I went and I ended up pitching Pace4Life, getting a team together, and we placed second out of 25 teams.
Did you have the idea before Startup Weekend?
Yeah, I had the idea just before Christmas the previous year and I went to Startup Weekend in March of last year. I worked on it while I was at work because it was more interesting than my actual work.
Then it just kind of fell by the wayside. I went to Startup Weekend with two business ideas and found a Post It note with this idea written on it.
I was sitting there listening and everyone kept going up with their pitches and saying things like, “This is a billion dollar idea and we’ll be a million dollar company in one year,” and I was like, Yeah, you’re not.
Not because some of them weren’t good ideas but just because it wasn’t going to happen that quickly. I guess I’m a natural cynic.
I’ve never really chased money. I think the only time I’ve ever really chased money in a career I’ve regretted it because it was just a bad decision; it was a bad company. So I just figured the best thing was to go with the best idea and the money would come.
Pace4Life was never going to be a real business idea; it was always going to be a nonprofit, so I just went with it. I thought, it’s such a good idea, and it’s going to make a real change. How many people want to have a job where they feel like they’re actually doing something of value?
I’ve liked science since I was a kid and wanted to do something that I thought was real. Working in banking I just couldn’t relate to. Yes, I could be pretty good at my job and get paid well but in the end of the day, it’s just numbers.
This, on the other hand, was real. There was a real tangible benefit for people that we were working towards so I just ran with it. I thought I’d take a year off up until… Well, now really.
Are you thinking of taking Pace4Life in the social entrepreneurship direction?
Well, I think it’s just entrepreneurship, really. I like things that are tangible. I like things that are real, that I can relate to. I’ve always done charity work.
But I mean, do you have a plan to make Pace4Life profitable or is it going to be a strict non-profit?
I don’t want to take a salary at all. I’m quite happy working and putting my efforts into but I obviously can’t ignore the fact that I’ll need to make some money so when I go back to London, I’ve got a couple of real business ideas that will hopefully pay me a wage.
I’ll do those on the side or in parallel but the way I think I need to set up Pace4Life is that it will have a non profit arm and a for profit arm which funds it… What I want to do is actually sell pacemakers and recycle medals. That way we can actually raise money.
I think one of the reasons people are scared to get into a passion project – which it sounds like this is for you – is the loss of lifestyle that you had previously. What would you have to say to people who are fearful of that?
Well, I never really lived that champagne lifestyle. For me it’s always been about traveling or paying my mortgage.
I enjoyed work but I had other things outside of it that I wanted to do and it wasn’t just about getting and spending a load of cash. Sometimes when people talk about becoming an entrepreneur and doing something different they say, “I need to earn a certain amount of money or I need to save a certain amount of money before I can do that.”
And then they never quite make that jump. There’s two ways of doing that: you can earn more money to get to that stage and reach the same target. I don’t spend maybe as much money as I could but I don’t probably save as much as my parent’s would like me to.
I think it’s a choice, at the end of the day. You just have to make it.