Published October 16, 2007
Volume 15, Number 10

Keith Mullowney: Passion For “Building Things of Value” Drives Successful Ventures

By Barbara Lewis

Keith Mullowney is a self-proclaimed “serial entrepreneur” whose position as president and CEO of Clarity Medical Systems stirs an internal passion to save the sight of premature infants.

“We are experiencing a significant rise in premature births in this country and worldwide, predominately due to the older average age of birthing mothers and the enhanced quality of care. With it, comes increased incidence of Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP), a potentially blinding vascular disease of the eye. If detected early enough, blindness can be avoided in almost every case,” says Mullowney. “What excites me is that now we have an opportunity to change the way ROP is diagnosed and potentially saving the sight of thousands of children each year. Screening of newborns using our RetCam digital imaging enables medical practitioners to identify the disease and begin treatment earlier and more effectively.

“In the United States, the number of infants blinded by ROP is approximately 500-700 infants per year, but, in China, experts estimate it could be as many as 72,000 children. Currently, Clarity has the only widefield digital imaging technology that can photograph the eye of a premature infant. We’re on a mission to save the sight of generations of babies to come.

“Innovation in the eye health field has not kept up with that in other areas of medicine,” Mullowney explains.” In cardiology and orthopedics, for instance, we use imaging technologies like CT and MRI extensively in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, but ophthalmologists are using the same manual, analogue instruments that were first invented and used in the 1930s, relying on manual drawings and written notes to document and interpret the condition of the eye and diagnose and treat eye diseases. With technology that Clarity is developing, digital 3D images of the front and back of the eye will accurately document the actual condition of the eye leaving nothing to speculation. In addition, rather that requiring a highly-trained physician to take the time to acquire the required diagnostic information about the condition of the eye, now a high-school trained technician can rapidly and efficiently acquire these 3D images of the eye, providing the physician the required information needed for more accurate diagnosis and treatment of eye diseases. This is a huge advantage.”

It is clear that Mullowney lives by the words “if you don’t believe in what you do, you shouldn’t do it”, but how did the boy from a strict Quaker household in New Jersey become the leader of start-up companies in California? Here’s how.

“I always worked,” Mullowney reflects. “The work ethic was dominant and I had jobs from a very young age, including shoe shine and lawn mowing businesses. My parents allowed me to have just about anything I wanted, as long as I earned half the money. At about age eight, I earned and saved $50, a lot of money in those days and half the price of my new Raleigh bicycle.

“My mother, probably the most influential person in my life, set the standard for responsibility and strength for me,” Mullowney observes. “My father died when I was 14 and she became an educator, earning a master’s degree in education while teaching during the day and going to graduate school at night.”

Mullowney’s mother also taught him to value other people. One summer, she sent him to work alongside summer laborers picking strawberries at a nearby truck farm. It was her way of teaching him appreciation for the hard work others did to provide food for their table. “She made me get dirty to teach me respect for others,” he says.

At college, Mullowney studied pre-medicine, but switched to economics and graduated in 1968 with honors. According to him, student deferments from the military draft were in short supply in those days, so he did “the logical thing” and enlisted in the Marine Corps. After retiring from the Marine Corps as a colonel 28 years later, Mullowney’s long-time interest in medicine led him to accept a position with a well-known company, American Hospital Supply, that was hiring returning military officers.

“Initially, my interest in going to work for them was to associate with people in the medical field,” Mullowney remembers. “I wanted to see if I still had sufficient interest to return to undergraduate pre-med studies and then enroll in medical school. What happened was a challenging and successful career on the industry side of health care. I never looked back.”

Mullowney worked for large companies for some years and, having made his way to the Bay Area through a series of business transfers, began working with start-ups in 1988. “I’m fiercely committed and loyal and start-ups are a perfect fit for me. Though not all of them have been oriented toward the healthcare field, I have learned over time that I can bring the most value to companies that focus on medical or health care needs because of my background and deep-seated interest.

“Start-ups are incredibly challenging. It takes tremendous commitment and vision, a lot of hard work and you’re always under-resourced. As a leader, you have to be strategic and tactical at the same time and you have to learn how to forge a tight and capable team that shares a common vision and commitment. Mistakes have the potential to be fatal and each major mistake goes right to the top. You can’t point fingers like you might be able to in a large corporation.”

Again, Mullowney’s military background comes into play as he leads and motivates people. “One of the things you learn in combat is how to make decisions and when to make them. Often you see people making decisions when they don’t need to and not making them when they have to. Decisions are made based on the amount of information they have, not on the tempo, which is the crucial element. Sometimes you have no information, but you have to act. Other times you have endless information, but it isn’t time to act. The ability to think and act both strategically and tactically is critical in the start-up world.

“I have a very high risk tolerance. I’d lose my shirt in Tahoe, so I don’t go, but I’ll bet on myself or my team anytime. I like to build things and I like to see an idea consummated. I’m convinced that we must shift healthcare in this country from a treatment to a preventive model, especially with the huge aging issues we are facing. You can’t affect that shift with outdated, immobile, labor-intensive tools and, frankly, innovation is not keeping up with the problem. Start-ups suit my style because I care deeply and have a keen sense of responsibility. I see that we can make a difference and that gets me excited. There’s a huge opportunity to change the way we work and think in eye health care and all of us need to do better than we are now. At Clarity, we’re beginning to move the ball and make significant progress, up over 90% over last year. We have a great team of committed people here at 5775 West Las Positas, who are doing important things. I’m very proud to be part of their effort.”


Also in this issue ...