This is a story about robots, a six-year-old company worth £1bn, and a costume-wearing CEO. Let’s start with the machines.
Martin Frost and his team build them. His robots are special. So special that investors have been falling over themselves to jump on board. Backers have ploughed more than £300m into this UK headquartered company since 2013, contributing to its classification as a £1bn ‘unicorn’ business. “We don’t like the word, although my friends’ children all do, so I do have a unicorn pencil, pencil-case and sharpener,” Martin laughs.
The robots made by the company Martin founded along with four other colleagues – CMR Surgical – helps surgeon’s perform complex surgery on humans, reducing both the physical and mental demands placed upon them. The market is excited because it believes these machines are coming to operating theatres near you very soon. In fact, ‘Versius’ is already operating in a number of hospitals in the UK and India, but many more orders – ultimately a market in the thousands from all over the world – are in the pipeline.
After such wave-making growth, it’s not surprising that Martin is EY’s ‘Disruptor’ Entrepreneur of the Year 2019. However, the term ‘disruptor’ is barely adequate. This founder is looking to transform not only the medical-devices market but also surgery as a whole. The game he’s playing is big.
So, how did this unicorn with more than 500 staff come about? It all began with a simple observation, although not one you’d expect from a history graduate and former accountant. Martin says: “Operating theatres have not yet embraced automation technology. Planes, cars, factories – they’ve been transformed by it. Surgery has not – yet. It’s still seen as a ‘craft’. Depending on what hospital you’re in and who’s operating, a surgical procedure could be performed in a hundred different ways. Given how far technology has moved on, that’s certainly neither a standard nor an optimum solution.”
He continues: “Robotics enable surgeons to be more accurate and precise. It’s ideal for ‘keyhole’ or ‘minimal-access’ surgery, which is incredibly challenging to perform by hand. We knew that we could build robots that would improve the lives of patients, surgeons and hospital teams. That’s what led to CMR Surgical.”
Self-belief and persistence
Having the idea is one thing. Getting investors to back it is quite another. “The hardest part of the journey was actually the bit before the beginning,” says Martin. “The VCs, hedge funds and private-equity companies didn’t want to invest because we didn’t have anything except ardent belief and an ambitious plan.”
After 14 months of talking to investors, nothing had come through. But Martin kept going, despite ignoring a self-imposed deadline. “When you start a business like this you give yourself a certain amount of time,” he says. “You promise yourself that you’ll try for X number of months, and if it hasn’t happened, then you’ll move on to something else, not least because you’re not paid for that part of the journey.”
You only need one
Happily, Martin stuck to his task: “As an entrepreneur, if you talk to lots of people and they all say no, in some ways you become even more passionate about your idea. You won’t let it go and you keep reminding yourself that you really need only one backer to get things started.”
Finally, after more than a year of conversations and meetings, CMR Surgical found its first backer, Escala Capital – who are still the company’s biggest investor.
A huge plan
You only need one backer. These words are solace-filled balm for all struggling founders the world over. Martin believes that his story contains another lesson, too: “Lots of people write business plans just to get investors to back them. However, that’s not the same as saying, ‘I believe my business will succeed’. Our plan was not devised cynically; it was written ambitiously and honestly. We didn’t hold back – we included the market-transformation strategy needed for success. Our plan was huge and it came from our hearts. In the end, that appealed to Escala, and it’s been vital to our success.”
Conversations, not pitches
CMR Surgical’s founder has more advice for entrepreneurs looking to win over investors. He says: “There’s an overused word – passion. For me, authenticity is more important. If I want to explain how I will deliver change in my market, I need to express that in numbers, but I also need to explain it authentically. Magazine articles such as ‘12 Things You Must Do To Win Over Investors’ are not useful. It’s about conversation – always a conversation. We’re human beings. If you don’t know me, I’m never going to convince you to invest in me. If I don’t know you, I’m never going to be comfortable with you as an investor. You have to get beyond the idea that it’s a pitch across a table. It has to be a conversation.”
Finding the talent
After incorporating CMR Surgical in January 2014, Martin set about building a team to deliver his vision. The start-up needed exceptional people, and Cambridge was the perfect place in which to find them. But a strong location was not enough. A plan was needed to lure the best tech talent.
Martin says: “I’m proud of our technology but actually I’m incredibly proud of our marketing. The first time I met Patrick [Pordage, head of marketing], we discussed the idea that Cambridge companies do not do marketing well. That’s a massive generalisation of course, but we tend to be a bit introverted in this city and we like to prioritise problem-solving. However, we invested a lot in our brand and our marketing from the off. If you create the fire, people get curious. Talent finds us because of our marketing.
“My advice is to think about your marketing and brand early on. It’s terribly important that when people hear ‘CMR Surgical’ they think about what we stand for just as much as our product. The two things should sit very close together.”
Underpinning CMR Surgical’s marketing and technical prowess is its culture. To set the right tone, Martin asks for something unusual – he wants his team, himself included, to show humility.
“We are ambitious, people-centred, fair and responsible,” he says. “Those are our values. But we also ask for humility. Why? Because transforming surgery is a massive task. We’re not just selling a product. We need to understand surgery and surgeons completely and fundamentally. We need to support hospitals and their teams. We want surgeons to be involved in our innovation and product development. To achieve all that, we need everyone to show humility.”
Martin is also keen to bring balance and lightness to the culture. “I love to find the fun in everything,” he says. “I’ve dressed up as both a snowman and a turkey to address the company. Laughter is important. As a leader, you need unshakable belief and relentless drive, but you also can’t take yourself too seriously.”
Martin might not take himself too seriously, but that’s at odds with his take on CMR Surgical. He’s built a company with a hugely consequential mission, and the CEO knows the importance of achieving his goals – doing so will improve the lives of patients and surgeons and will make hospitals better places. Seven years ago, CMR Surgical was an idea. Today, it’s valued at £1bn and has the potential to change the course of surgical history. Watch this space, who knows what’s next…