As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Jason McKeown, CEO of Neurovalens.
Jason holds a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery and Bachelor of Obstetrics from Queen’s University, Belfast. Jason is a member of the Association of British Neurologists and the Royal College of Emergency Medicine and is a Visiting Scholar at the UCSD Center for Brain & Cognition. In 2015 Jason was invited onto the Propel Program by InvestNI — a business accelerator aimed at ‘high caliber entrepreneurs who have the passion and energy to succeed on the international stage’. Upon his completion of the program, Neurovalens was awarded Company of the Year 2015.
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
What brought me to founding Neurovalens was my initial career path as a doctor. As a child, I was really interested in electronics and computers. I taught myself how to work with electronics and build computers. I was also interested in the human body, particularly the brain and nervous system. In the same way, it’s almost like a massive computer. The most advanced computer in the world is the human brain and nervous system. So, when I went into medicine, I treated the body as a kind of electronic machine. With time, these two things came together for me, my love of electronics from childhood with my knowledge of being a doctor and the nervous system. I suddenly realized we can make electronic devices that literally plug into the brain and the nervous system. These two things came full circle for me, allowing me to really help people.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
One of the big challenges I faced was the fact that I was a doctor on a really stable and good career path. A lot of people have goals to be a doctor and I was there already. I was paid well and I really enjoyed what I was doing. So, one of the biggest questions for me was, how do you leave the security of being a doctor and go on to build a company which doesn’t even exist? I had to build everything from scratch. The lesson that I learned from this looking back, is I actually shouldn’t have been afraid to move away from where I was comfortable. I should have arrived at that step earlier and begin to make things happen. I still wanted to work as a doctor, I had doubts, and I wondered when the right time was. The fact of the matter is there is no right time, the right time is now. So, for anyone who asks me, I will always say the lesson that I have learned is to get started as soon as you can. The rest will fall into place.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
The number one thing that led to my eventual success is working hard. Everyone says you have to work hard and sacrifice so much to be successful, and this really cannot be overestimated. You literally just have to put in the work. One of my biggest strengths is that I work extremely hard. I see things through to the absolute end. Success doesn’t just come from a great idea, lots of luck, or correct timing. Because ultimately, if you do not put the effort in, you’re not going to be a success. So that’s definitely one of the biggest factors that has led to where we are as a Company now.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”?
- The first thing I wish someone had told me before I become a CEO is that things always take ten times longer than what you plan for initially. For example, we were supposed to receive FDA approval for our device, Modius SLIM, in 2018 but realistically, it’s going to be 2020, which is still quick. However, in tech, things take usually take more time than what you had planned for.
- The second thing I wish someone had told me before I become a CEO would be that things take more money than what was planned for. For example, the first-ever ramp funding that we received was around $60,000, and at that time, we thought that was all we needed. Fast forward, and our last investment was $6 million and we’re still looking at maybe doing another investment, or another after that, and it always takes more money.
- The third thing I wish someone had mentioned to me before is that I would have to work far harder than I thought I ever would have to. An example of that is, I used to work in the ER, and I would work seven-night shifts in a row, 12 hours each. During those shifts, I was the only ER doctor in the entire hospital. If you had a heart attack, I treated you, if you had a broken arm, I treated you, if your child was unwell, I’d look after them. So that was tough, but incredibly, I work harder now. It’s literally non-stop, 24/7.
- The fourth thing I wish someone had mentioned to me when I become a CEO, is that people may think you’ve got a great idea and tell you so, but they don’t actually follow through. For example, friends and family often tell you things are great and then once it’s their turn to pay for it, actually, you’ll find that people just generally don’t follow through on it.
- The fifth and final thing I wish someone had told me before I became is CEO is not to expect any holidays for the first five or six years. An example of that would be my trip to Dubai for a week, over Christmas. I thought it was going to be a holiday. But actually, something happened to where it ended up being a series of meetings. People knew that I was in Dubai and arranged for me to meet with the government and health authorities. They’re in Dubai and it basically turned into, one full day of meetings. So, what I thought was a vacation turned into a business trip.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
The best advice I would give colleagues to help them thrive and not burnout is to be aware of burnout in the first place. We have a team of about 20 people, and everyone has different levels of where they work most efficiently. Working 110% is not necessarily the way to get the best out of people. Some people work better under pressure, and some people work better when there’s none. With our team, we try to accommodate everybody and make sure that people aren’t burning out so they can spend time doing what they want to do and doing it well. Finding out what makes people tick or what they love and having them do that actually reduces their risk of burnout, because they’re doing something enjoyable rather than just working. That’s the culture of Neurovalens actually. We interview people who we think can add to the team to keep it a healthy culture. That all leads to better health and wellbeing and avoiding burnout.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
The person that has helped me achieve success and that I’m grateful for is my wife, Patricia. A lot of entrepreneurs don’t have a family, wife, or kids because they’re traveling all the time and really busy. You have to put business first. Me and my wife, Patricia, don’t have kids, but she left her job as a teacher so she could travel and become my personal assistant. She’s also our office manager. There’s been quite a bit of sacrifice that has been made on her part. If the two of us weren’t aligned, it would be extremely difficult to travel and do everything that I do. Without her, I wouldn’t be a success.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
A professional goal that I’m working to accomplish is to gain FDA approval for our technology, which is the gold standard. When it comes to Modius SLEEP and Modius SLIM, it’s great that we’re already helping so many people. But to ultimately have the devices be prescribed and covered through insurance companies is the big goal for 2020.
A professional goal that I’m working towards is to continue helping people. I love having the opportunity to create something that can help people. There’s also an academic side of that. We’re really excited about publishing papers and explaining to people how we actually do this and how it all works in-person. Ultimately, I come to work enjoying what I do every day and I really love what I do.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
A lasting legacy I want to leave goes back to why Neurovalens was founded. We want to create technologies that address global epidemics, such as diabetes, the global sleep crisis, and mental health. These are things that are not getting better and things that we just do not have a grip on at all. We are able to make technology, basically, in a way that people don’t need to take prescription medication. We want to leave that behind and just make sure that these epidemics eventually go away, and that we’re part of that happening.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
The movement that I would want to create would be a preventative approach to disease. For example, diabetes in children. The reason being is that if you prevent diabetes in the first place, a child won’t develop Type 2 diabetes that’s probably going to continue for the rest of their lives. Doctors might take methods to reverse it, but it’s reversing something that has already happened. Whereas if you can stop it before it ever happens it will never be an issue. So, the movement that I would start is that children should not have Type 2 diabetes. It just shouldn’t happen. Prevent it rather than waiting until they develop it and treating it then.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Follow me on Twitter @DrJasonMcKeown.