Kellogg World



Photos of San Francisco

Challenging convention
with invention

Lisa Earnhardt ’96 has brought investors, doctors and her own team around to an essential implant for sinus pain sufferers

The San Francisco Bay Area may be “epicenter of the venture capital community,” Lisa Earnhardt says, but try getting investors excited about medical devices when they’re looking for the next Twitter.

“Probably anywhere in the world it would be incredibly hard to ignore the innovation coming out of social media, especially in the Bay Area where it’s happening right in our backyard,” Earnhardt says. “Facebook is half a mile from my office.”

As president and CEO of Intersect ENT, Earnhardt has made a career of getting people to question conventional thinking. And with Intersect’s sinus implants, Earnhardt has challenged a medical device industry geared toward hearts and bones to focus on ears, noses and throats.

Early efforts have paid off. In addition to receiving FDA approval of their first product two years ago, the company was awarded the American Rhinologic Society’s Cottle Award for Best Clinical Science Research after publishing a study detailing a new implant’s effectiveness. Intersect’s products work by delivering a time-released anti-inflammatory drug into the sinuses.

But perhaps the greatest challenge ahead comes from convincing surgeons to think about non-surgical options for chronically inflamed sinuses.

"We just sort of translated that area of [surgical] experience and transferred it to a different part of the body. That is, the sinuses."
Lisa Earnhardt ’96
President and CEO, Intersect ENT

“They are surgeons by training. That is their mindset, taking people to the operating room,” Earnhardt says. “In the future, a patient could come in to the office with symptoms normally warranting surgery and the physician could say, ‘Hey, I can treat you right now.’”

The conceptual shift also inspired her team, a group whose expertise revolved mostly around cardiology, she said. Earnhardt herself led Boston Scientific’s Cardiac Surgery division before taking the reins at Intersect in 2008.

Then a 12-person startup, Intersect’s initial focus was creating a product to improve surgical outcomes. But after reviewing the product portfolio, Earnhardt and her team realized that a small stent placed by doctors in the office would be not only less invasive but also a more cost-effective solution for sinus sufferers.

Today, this 140-person company is dedicated not only to improving sinus surgery but also to keeping sinusitis sufferers out of the operating room in the first place.

“Building and managing a company from a small R&D project to a commercial organization requires the ability to understand complex problems in order to make good decisions, quickly,” she said. “Recruiting the right folks with the right expertise has been critical to our success and then it was just a matter of applying our collective experiences to a different part of the body.”