Earning the Right to Ask for the Business with Nick Curtis of LENSAR


Click here to watch the video version of this podcast.

Nicholas Curtis, CEO of LENSAR, got some of his entrepreneurial spirit seeing his grandfathers (“pappous” in their Greek homeland) and father own and operate bars and restaurants. A football scholarship took him to Northwestern University in Chicago, and the rest has been what he calls “a circuitous route, with some serendipity.”

Curtis traces his route in this episode of the OIS podcast, starting with his first job at IBM, where he was trained in the company’s philosophy of a needs-satisfaction approach to selling. “It was all about building a relationship, and ultimately earning the right to ask for the business,” he says.

That position led to one with American Hospital Supply, where Curtis met William J. Link, PhD, (now managing partner of Flying L Partners), who became president of American Medical Optics (AMO) and recruited Curtis . Curtis later joined LENSAR as chief commercial officer, and was named “interim” CEO in 2012.

LENSAR is currently developing the Ally system, which Curtis says is “the first femtosecond laser for cataract surgery that integrates a next-gen laser with a Swiss-engineered phacoemulsification device in a very small compact cataract treatment removal system.” The company is looking to file a 510K early in 2022, and hopes to bring the product to market in the second half of 2022.

Curtis also discusses tips for being successful including:
• The importance of teamwork and members sharing corporate values.
• Surrounding oneself with good people.
• Respecting different points of view.
• Integrity always.
• Being customer focused and meeting customers’ needs.
• Treating customers as partners.
• Not fearing making a mistake, and realizing that moving on is critical

Click “play” to hear Nick Curtis describe his ongoing business path!


Ehsan: Hi, everybody, this is Ehsan Sadri. I’m a board certified ophthalmologist here in Newport Beach, California. also involved with the visionary venture fund here and also in Orange County. And I’m actually really delighted to bring in my good friend and enthusiastic energetic really fit, brilliant buddy of mine who we haven’t had on the podcast before. And we’re delighted took a little while mostly on my end my schedule to get him on and just really delighted to get Nick here, Nick it you know, obviously, Curtis, everyone knows who you are, for those of you who are not in cataract refractive if you are, you know who he is, if you’re not, then you know, you’ll get to know him a little, but he’s got a very unique background. He you know, he’s an inventor, but also in TLC. So he understands the operational, and also the clinical aspects of ophthalmology and obviously has been the leader and CEO of Lensar. For many years now, a lot of important things happening. For those of you who were in the Oh is anterior segment, you saw his last presentation, which was absolutely remarkable. I found that to be very intriguing. And there’s a lot of comments and emails, I got in text messages on your new platforms coming out. So Nick, I’m just delighted to have you here. I wanted to talk to the audience a little bit about your background, for those of you who don’t know, Nick, Nick, tell us about your background, tell us you two personal background on your I know you’re Greek and have love of Greece together. Okay, tell us about a family background where you grew up, and then some of the entrepreneurial influences you’ve had in the past.

Nick: My family was very, very close, and I’m sure you can relate, you know, like, as being Greek Orthodox, and, and be, you know, my parents came first generation, you know, we were, we were very close family. So the fact that I lost a brother, I was the oldest and he was in the middle, and I have a younger brother, I really needed to my dad wanted me to go away to school. So that, you know, I could, you know, get out and learn, and sort of grow. And it was important that I needed to sort of get away from home, you know, at that point, and be become, you know, more independent, I thought I was independent and whatnot. But my father was encouraging me to go somewhere else. And so, you know, for me, it was interesting, because I played football, and I wrestled, and so I was recruited, you know, to Michigan State. And I was recruited to some other places. And so I ended up I went to Northwestern, in Chicago, and I was on a four year football scholarship there. And then I wrestled my freshman year as well. And so when I joined, I went into the School of Communication Studies, really, with an emphasis in business and marketing, and communications, you know, it’s so far reaching, and particularly in the business and marketing side, you know, that it actually is applied pretty well for, you know, when prepared me pretty well, for a lot of the business I got into afterwards.

Ehsan: So that’s great. So I mean, so it’s smart. So you’re, you’re in Chicago, it’s about what four or five hours away, you’re not too far away, but you’re far enough that you’re kind of learning how to kind of be on your own and, you know, do your own laundry, all this other stuff, plus, you got a scholarship, which is terrific. For those of you don’t know, Nick is still in exquisite shape. So make sure you

Nick: COVID impact on that. It hasn’t been positive.

Ehsan: He makes it he makes it he humbles us little guys that are trying to hit the gems over here once in a while. Okay, so you get there, and then your initial career path, so you’re out and called out of college, what get what got you into eye care.

Nick: So this is this is, you know, kind of interesting, because it was a little bit of a circuitous route. So it’s, there’s some serendipity too. So I interviewed at Northwestern, you know, in my senior year, as I was finishing the thing was, I mean, Northwestern was such a great school, and we had so much access to a lot of different, you know, a lot of different things and so the whole experience there being in Chicago and playing football there at a time when the team wasn’t all that great, we were a bit still big 10 and the university, you know, really wasn’t as near as supportive of athletic skill, because they were more of an academic institution. And so, you know, what’s interesting, in and of itself, going, you know, going there, but I started interviewing in the spring of my senior year, and I got my first job offer. And in I took my first job at IBM. And so IBM back then was, you know it’s a huge and amazing company. Now it was, you know, really top drawer of company, you know, and so they have training in what I really liked about it was that they had like fantastic training and experience. And so interesting enough, the regional managers of the Chicago office was actually turns out a little serendipity. He was a Michigan State University grad, of course, which was my home city. So he and I, after I was offered the job, and I joined there, and I was going to the Chicago office, we had an immediate connection. He was older he had been with IBM for over 25 years at that time, he was a lifer there, and so he was really a good mentor. You know, pretty funny though, when I was interviewing at IBM, and I interviewed with him for the first time, you know, I was told that, you know, he might, he might try to throw me off slide. When I went into the office, I’ll never forget it. Because IBM, you know, they were all buttoned up, it was all, you know, dark suits, white shirts. you know, when I was coming out, you know, after playing football, I didn’t really have a suit, I had a sport coat. And it was, I had a white shirt, but I had a big white tie. And, you know, in plaid sport coat and white pants, I went in there. And he says to me, one of the first questions is, why would a company like IBM waste their time hiring a young punk like you? It’s, uh, that was eye opening last right. And it’s so, you know, I tried to think and I just real quick, I just kind of thought to myself, and I said, well, you know, if you really thought I was a punk, I don’t think I would be here. And then he just kind of sat back and looked at me, like, okay, you know, he took that. So he and I, we developed a really good relationship. And he was really a good mentor, he really ran a tight ship at the office, he but he also promoted a lot of fun and all the people at IBM, you know, really taught me a lot about business fundamentals. In particular, you know, there was this whole IBM sales method. And more, it’s more of a philosophy, I actually had to go to school for that. And I was in school for close to four months before I ever made a sales call. The only sales calls I made were when I was mirroring, you know, people that were in the in the field already to begin with more senior people. And so, they base this whole philosophy, if you will, on what they refer to as a need satisfaction approach to selling. It was all about building a relationship, and ultimately earning the right to ask for the business. And so, there were a lot of very specific steps that you had to go through. And it wasn’t really something that you did consciously, at least not once you got going, but they believe that if you didn’t, you know, earn the right, then then you didn’t have the right to ask for the business in subsequently, you probably wouldn’t get the business and at the core, it was all about really building a relationship. And it was about integrity. And so, we learn to represent our technology and take the high road, not to really disparage our competitors. And you were always we were told from minute one, that you talk about your technology and offering you don’t disparage a competitor, in fact, right in their bylaws, if you spoke poorly about a competitor, and your claim was found to either be untrue, or that you skew you know, you were not proper in you slam someone, it was actually grounds for immediate dismissal, and there was no second chances, it didn’t matter who you were. So, if you wanted a long term business relationship, then you had to have really integrity and this is really a core foundational value when going forward. It’s also based on need understanding and need development and sort of earning the trust in order to kind of be a consultative person, consultative selling. And finally, being you know, getting to the point where you can make a recommendation and match what you have in part of your offering to, to the customer needs. And so ironically, about three years into the IBM career, American Hospital supply based on Chicago, and specifically the V Mueller division was interviewing for sales, and they were interviewing different candidates in East Lansing, Michigan and Michigan State. And one of my lifelong buddies, who still one of my best friends today, John Breslin, and anybody that looks at anything with Michigan State or knows anything about Michigan State. His father was Jack Breslin of the Breslin Center at Michigan State. And that was the Breslin Center Michigan State was built and named after John’s dad. And we call Mr. President Tiger jack. up back then he was an all American in the 40s and he was Executive Vice President in Michigan State. And so, John interviewed with America in hospital V Mueller there, and over the course of the conversation of the interviewer must have made some comment about looking for someone in Chicago with sales experience, but not necessarily healthcare. And John gave them my name. And so, one thing led to another and, and I ultimately made a difficult decision to leave IBM, and one of my mentors, Bob Klein, in move to V Mueller. And the reasons for that or was that I viewed IBM as a lifetime career, it was safe. And it was really seniority based. And the organization was more about the hierarchy than it was really entrepreneurial. And so, I really, you know, I had a lot of drive and a lot of energy, and I was doing really well there. But I just didn’t see my success and growth path really matching, sort of the ambition and drive that I had, you know, going forward. So, V. Mueller, and the healthcare business was much more risk oriented and entrepreneurial. You know, there was no salary, there were multiple products across like, all surgical specialties. And so, as a younger person coming out into sales, it was really intriguing to be able to go and watch all different kinds of surgeries and have an amazing catalog of products to be able to provide people. And I had a Chicago based territory. And so, you know, it was extremely competitive. And so, it was awesome, you know, I was really well trained in the customer relationship building and selling from the world class company, IBM, and now I was in this highly competitive entrepreneurial environment, where your efforts would, you know, would actually be rewarded. So, you know, really, you know, the other aspect of it was just the intellectual curiosity, and the challenge of being able to learn all about, you know, the different surgical specialties and devices, you know, so I was 24-25 years old, and I never looked back, you know, and honestly, my life would never be the same. This is where I would shortly thereafter, you know, meet Bill Link, Andy Corley, and others that would ultimately have a huge influence in my career in life.

Ehsan: And so then how did that happen for you? How did you end up meeting Bill and Andy?

Nick: So I met Bill and Andy, so Bill was the was the head of the medical specialties group at American Hospital there. And as the head of the medical specialties group, he was the vice president in there. They had a variety of different specialty products that American was developing and manufacturing. And so within that there was higher Sheltie had neurosurgical neuro surgical shots and, and drains and, and, and those types of things. And then they had at that time, it was called medical optics center and medical optics center was became American Medical Optics, AMO and so we started, you know, the, the Mueller as a distributor, we had like 25,000 products across all medical specialties. And so the American Medical Optics Lenses, were going to be sold through the Mueller and since it was an American Hospital supply product, Bill and his team came to Chicago, and they were going to train the sales group a little bit in the eyes, and what we were going to do and the products that they had, and we were going to represent the eye care products and at that time, it was Yag lasers, it was Yag lasers, and intraocular lenses started in rigid interior chamber lenses that went to flexible anterior chamber lenses, you know, Charlie Celvins, flexible AC lens, and then many of the posterior Chamberlain styles, Bill Simcoe, you know, we met Bill Simcoe and of course, you know, just a host of people so that’s where, you know, I got into the ophthalmic business, ultimately, V. Mueller best traveling all bought American Hospital supply in about 1984. And so then at that time, they were going to spin off the eye division. And so Bill became the president of American Medical Optics. It was small soul to Allergan’s and smithkline Beckman, and that’s where and then he recruited me to, to AMO I started to do really well in the eye business, you know, we got to be sold all these other products. And when that all started happening, Bill recruited me over to AMO. And Andy, he joined around that same time and so we we’re all you know, we were all together, he, you know, he hired us and, and that’s where that’s where we met. And that’s where the transition to purely ophthalmology began.

Ehsan: Yeah. And he it’s funny because he, I had Bill Link here, you know, he’s a friend and a mentor. And he It was fascinating because he told me the other side story of this whole how he, how he went up, you know, as he was going up?

Nick: Yes.

Ehsan: And I don’t know, if you get a chance to listen to this absolutely fascinating how, you know, they were he was they were doing retina. And then I guess the chairman of the group asked them the group, Hey, does everyone know? Does anyone know about this intraocular lens? So, he described it, and he like, waited, and waited and waited, nobody said anything. And at the very end, he raises and sheepishly is like, yes. And then he, you know, that was the beginning. He said, like, if I hadn’t done that, who knows, if I, you know, AMO wouldn’t ever exist, which is just fascinating, like how these little things occur.

Nick: So it’s, it’s so unbelievable, because you know, those little things in life at the time, you’re not really, you know, you don’t really realize just how big they are, and then what kind of an influence they’re going to have in your life, your whole life later, that’s why I said, You know, I want you once I went over to V Mueller, or I never look back, everything was just, you know, full speed ahead, forward, and the eye business was really exciting, you know, I liked a lot of the different things that we were doing. But at the end of the day, the eye business was really starting to grow, I could see, you know, even as young and inexperienced, that the technology was rapidly evolving. And so, you know, to have an opportunity to be able to participate in sort of this rapidly evolving business that was really growing. And the ophthalmologists were cool. You know, everybody was, you know, let’s face it, you’re providing a major, you know, you’re treating, you know, major senses, right? Would you rather be Would you rather be deaf? Or would you, you know, would you rather be blind if you had to pick one of those, you know, so if you think about it, you’re providing vision to patients, that’s really exciting. And yet at the same time, it’s not life and death, like, I had been in plenty of brain surgeries, and open-heart surgeries, and those types of things where you were dealing with, you know, with life and death. So, it was a really a great combination of great technology, really doing great things, you know, for the patient. And at the same time, you know, the technology was rapidly evolving, and the business was the market was growing. So, it was it was very, it was a very exciting, very exciting time. And so, we all just kind of, you know, we were just all into that. And we were all young, and you know, and very enthusiastic, enthusiastic today. And enthusiastic even just thinking about it, just because it was it was very excited.

Ehsan: So, I mean, you have a very rich background. I mean, we could, we could stop and talk about STAAR, Chiron. And then you know, what led up to Lensar, but for the sake of time, tell us about your core role lens, that Lensar and I know you’ve been there since 2012, your board member and you’ve gone through a major, you know, you and I have sat down privately over dinner. I’ve already you know, how many times have you had MMA activity with this company you stood by, which is remarkable. Not a lot of people do that. Tell us about your current role. What’s exciting you about your current role, your technology, and you know, again, maybe you want to talk to some extent about your newest sort of combo therapy that you have on Azure, but also some important lessons of what I call sticktoitiveness right, gettoitiveness and sticktoitiveness. And it sounds like you’re one of those guys who just hunkers down no matter what. And I love that. So, tell us a little bit about that.

Nick: Yeah, so there’s a little bit of both in there, you know, so in any rate, you know, we, I really wanted to be in the treatment, you know, side of the business. And so, when I had the opportunity to go to the Lensar, I came in as the Chief Commercial Officer, and my job was going to be to set up you know, for distribution and in sales of the product. And so, the company was delayed through the product development. And so, we ultimately, you know, work to get the product ready to launch and it was very tumultuous time. And so, at that time then the board of directors made me the interim CEO interim the longtime day of interim in 2012, because that goes back to 2012 before we even commercialize the product, and so, you know, got the product to the marketplace. And, you know, certainly the company’s been through a lot of ups and downs. And so we really, you know, if I go back to my core, you know, core things I mentioned earlier on, you know, which is about the integrity, and about being completely customer centric, customer focused, and really focused on meeting, you know, real needs, you know, when unmet needs, we really believe that we’ve evolved our current platform, more than any of the other lasers, laser companies that are performing cataract surgery. And really, it starts with, you know, we look at, can we improve efficiencies? Can we help the physician provide better medicine; can we help them deliver on a better outcome? Can we increase and enrich their opportunity to be able to present into perform and use this technology and utilize it on their patients, and subsequently, did the patients have a better experience in it. And so, we, that’s at the core of what we’re doing. And this really takes a team. So, we believe that that our ergonomics, the augmented reality imaging, which includes this cataract density program that we got, and imaging that automatically adapts and provides custom fragmentation and energy settings, that we have the broadest range of tools to help the doctor manage astigmatism. And we’re looking to bring that those kinds of things routine during cataract surgery, and especially, you know, for folks that are going to evolve from the current Lensar platform to the ally system, which is the gen two. And so again, you know, helping a surgeon to increase their revenue and improve the outcomes moving forward. And so, we’re deep into development of our Gen two device. And I call that device ally. And that’s really going to be the first femtosecond laser for cataract surgery that integrates a next gen laser, I can explain that a little bit with a Swiss engineered phacoemulsification device, really a top end fago in a very small compact cataract treatment removal system. And so, the core feature technologies that help to make our current platform so popular, are going to be core to the ally system as well. And then some additional features there. And so we really believe that this is going to change the paradigm in cataract surgery treatments, we’re looking to bring that product to the marketplace in the second part of 2022. And we’re looking to file with a 510k with the FDA, you know, sometime shortly after the first of the year 2022.

Ehsan: That’s fascinating me for those of us ophthalmologists, answers segment, refractive surgeons, that’s really exciting. Because, you know, it’s, I would say, you know, I’m part of the minority, I would say probably on my personal practice. So we have about 50 to 70% of all comers probably still get femto of some kind, and it’s one of our offerings, as a popular with patients. I’m glad that, you know, one of the things I was delighted to hear is you’re spending more time sort of evolving that technology. And from I would say, Gosh, first box that I bought, you and I talked like, you know, we’ve had dinner at New Orleans, I remember ads in San Francisco talking about how we should combine this just so that for you to have this now offering coming out right around the corner is just super exciting for people like me, but a lot of our colleagues and you know we have nothing but you know, just absolute support for you and whatever you need us for us to support you let us know, because I think it’s really good, ultimately great for the patient. So thank you, as we close up, because you know, so much to talk about, right? So much more we can talk about love to bring you back, tell us some additional pearls that you may, you know, kind of wrap up by like, you know, you’ve had a rich career and if you notice, guys, he was talking about having mentors. Phil has a lot of mentors today. Tell us a little bit about that. What does a young Nick Curtis have to do to become? It’s slightly older there but still good-looking Nick Curtis.

Nick: So, you know, really, if you go teamwork, you know, it sounds cliche, but it is 100% true. If it’s not about the team, you can have the absolute best athlete, you can have the smartest engineer, you can have the best people selling but at the end of the day if the team is not functioning together, you’re gonna have limits to success, or no success at all. And so, the teamwork, I cannot emphasize that enough, number one, number two, you have to surround yourself with good people. And you have to be willing to bring people into work with people that might be smarter than you in several different ways. But you’re bringing everybody together, and you’re bringing out those things in people. And so you have to have a good team with a diversity of skills and a diversity of ideas. And so obviously, the stuffs do not faint for the heart. So, you know, the sense of commitment and focus. And I also believe that, you know, the team has to share corporate values and commitment, integrity, integrity, integrity, and really being really customer focused, I don’t like to talk about customer, for me that the customer is my partner, because without them, you don’t exist. And so that’s the other thing, you know, you have to have open communication, you have to have the team, you have to have integrity, you want to encourage spirited discussion, but you also have to have a respect for different points of view. And as a leader, your job is to do is to bring all of those things out, and at the end of the day, come up with an amalgamated plan, that you believe you have your best opportunity, your best chances of succeeding, because it’s meeting the needs goes back to the very beginning, meeting the needs of the audience, and your partners that you’re going to be doing business with. So you can’t really be afraid of making a mistake, Oh, my gosh, you know, but the mistakes are not fatal, unless you don’t recognize them. And you don’t want to face up to it, and that you can’t move on. And so you have to be able to move on with whatever change and that is critical. Every day, you got to learn something, and know your market and look at your customers and partner without them. You don’t exist.

Ehsan: Yeah, like, I mean, we can spend so much time there. I mean, there’s so much there. I mean, I, I’m an avid reader, I read a couple books a week, but like, for instance, for me, when I listen to that, and you know, I have we have team meetings at our practice, and you know, all the venture stuff we do. But really, at the end of the day, you know, you got this growth, you know, you know, in the beginning is smaller than you’ve got this sort of crazy, chaotic growth strategy. And, you know, is that you meeting with them weekly? Are you having company meetings? I mean, you have a lot of employees, how do you keep? Is it just your officers? Number one, that was the first question. Lastly, the second question would be, when everyone else all the big, other strategics are sort of, you know, probably not reinforcing or evolving the femto technology, you’re doubling down. So what are you seeing that no one else is seeing? That’s just fascinating. We’ll wrap up with that. What do you think?

Nick: I’ll be crazy?

Ehsan: I could have told you that.

Nick: Too much football. I get in there so many times.

Ehsan: You’re going for it, I love it.

Nick: No, all kidding aside, but you know, we’re completely focused. And the reality is, is that, you know, the glass is half full, you know, it’s, it’s not half empty, we believe that there are many unmet needs here Ehsan and so the big companies, their challenges is that they have such broad portfolios, and they have so many different products that they’re trying to manage. And most of the acquisitions that are related to this type of technology occurred, many management teams back and in the core, entrepreneurs aren’t necessarily there in the in the management teams that had the ownership interest in that aren’t there. So, for us, we view it as a major opportunity. And we’re completely focusing on one public company now. And we’re completely focused on delivering and delivering on time, what we say we’re going to deliver and bringing in bringing real value there. And that’s going to, you know, the company is going to continue to evolve and hopefully we evolve into many other aspects as well, not just this, but this would be the cornerstone, with which to launch, I meet with our senior team, and I meet with the managers of the departments on a weekly basis. I have usually a quarterly update for the entire company. But as I get into the office, I like to kind of move around in the office and not just sit in my office but get into some of the other departments and really see what people are doing and talk to them and you know, I get R&D updates and I get updates on all different Some things that we’re doing and I tried to talk to everybody, you know,

Ehsan: Love it. I mean, like I said, I could be another hour with you, but we got to wrap up and I’m gonna see you hopefully soon. We have a bunch of meetings coming up. I’ll be in and out of royal Hawaii and I, if I catch it up,

Nick: Let’s we should get together there.

Ehsan: Yeah, that’d be good. That’d be good. I look forward to it. I would love to talk to you about so. Again, wanted to thank you and wish you all the success in the world that you’re doing and have, you know, just unbelievable energy all these years and somewhere and also thank Craig and OIS guys for having the platform for having you on today, so thanks a lot, brother.