What if you were told one day you were going to die.
And that you didn’t know when it was going to happen.
This was the order a young and ambitious technologist and 8200 graduate, Avi Yaron was given in the year 1998.
The only antidote to fight this malicious condition became his own drive to overcome it.
Avi did end up surviving, and his life as well as many others as a result, changed forever.
His entrepreneurial journey was catapulted by an eminent death order. For most people, being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor would be devastating—however for Avi, it’s what prompted him to take action and ultimately, take back control of his life.
In 1998, he would begin to develop the first multidisciplinary miniature 3D camera system for brain tumor operations. After inventing this life-changing technology, today he lives tumor-free and has helped thousands of people with similar conditions. His company, Visionsense was acquired by Medtronic in 2018.
From there, he co-founded several health-tech ventures including Joy Ventures, which invests in neuro-wellness tech, Biolert, a seizure detection app, and SinuSafe, the first device for in-office sinusitis diagnosis and treatment.
Today, he is a managing partner at HealthYA Ventures, which focuses on investing in groundbreaking HealthTech innovations with out-of-the-box solutions, targeting unmet needs.
We spoke to him about his enduring life’s work in the med-tech field and what he sees for the future.
Interviewer: What’s your advice to entrepreneurs who feel like it’s part of the success ‘grind’ to sacrifice their health and sleep?
Avi: First of all, I’m obviously for entrepreneurship, but I’m against committing suicide or living in chronic distress. These don’t contradict and I only learned the consequences when I developed white hair and endured all this pain. When you look at the startup, it’s a system that needs to re-invent itself all the time. It runs fast, it has to listen and respond to the market, and most importantly, has to listen to the internal voice, because we’re inventing and developing something that the market doesn’t know yet, and maybe even something they don’t think they need. There’s an abundance of contradictions, as well as you’re running against time and money. That brings a lot of stress.
Now stress can be very positive, as it can be used as a driving force. But if it’s distress, then it’s negative. Do you know for the typical startup, what percentage of efforts will be wasted according to the research?
Interviewer: Maybe around 60%?
Avi: It’s around 40%. If I understand that and I spend more time on research, planning, and managing, perhaps I can reduce these numbers down to 10%. You’re always going to experience some friction, and that’s what I’ve been doing for many years with many companies. Now, think if you had 30% more time.
This is time that could be utilized for yourself, your hobbies, your friends, your family, and your thoughts. This is what I’ve been doing. I recommend that entrepreneurs pursue their dream, but do it in a sustainable, long-term manner.
My second point is all about efficiency. People have their mobile phones by them and it’s tempting not to check them every time it beeps or rings.
Unfortunately, our brain is not used to that. When we return to whatever we were supposed to do, we’re already unfocused. We pay for it when we’re constantly multitasking, thereby becoming significantly less efficient. What I need to do if there is an important task, then I will turn off my phone or put it on mute. I will just focus on one task only until I finish it. So focus and attention are something that we lack.
If we don’t manage our distractions, we will get lost. It’s the same regarding the startup’s focus on a niche market with an unmet need. Focus is key and if you focus, you can be very efficient and save lots of time and significantly improve your odds of success.
Interviewer: Can you inform us about the first medical system, Visionsense, that you created and how it came about?
Avi: I invented the first single-chip multi-disciplinary 3D camera system for keyhole neurosurgery.
The reason behind this was that, at the time, I was battling a life-threatening brain tumor. There was no way surgeons could accurately cut the entire tumor out because there was no technology to visualize it. I created it out of pure desperation to save my own life.
Interviewer: It took close to a decade for Visionsense to come to a completion. Were there times you felt disheartened? And if so, how did you push past it?
I had four surgeries during this course of time, and I got used to the feeling of disappointment, but what could I do? I had no other choice. The despair led me to act, and thankfully it didn’t lead me to accept things as they were.
It felt like I had a gun pointed at my head and I didn’t know how much time I had left. But the one advantage of thinking you’re going to die, is you don’t have fear of anything. You feel as if you can do anything and the sky’s the limit.
The mindset was that either I succeed in saving myself, or I’m dead meat anyway, I can only win from this, I cannot lose.
As someone who’s naturally curious, I sought alternative medicines and routes to cure my disease. But every three months, the MRI scan would come back to no avail, the tumor was still there and growing. I would be washed over with horrendous disappointment and lose hope again. I was young, had many plans and I didn’t want to die.
But every time I developed some new hope and picked up the pieces. I always held onto the internal belief that eventually everything would be okay.
Do you view yourself as a disrupter? I say that because usually when we think of technology and technologists we think in very binary and logical terms. Plus, I would argue that the importance of emotions and emotional health is removed from not only medicine as you say, but from business at large.
Avi: I’m a realistic guy and I have degrees in physics and electrical engineering as well as an MBA. I love analysis and research, but when I was hit by a major question that I could not research and understand the answer to, and for that fact, no one could, I had to revert back to intuition.
Over the years, I learned to trust my intuition and I wish that was something that was taught in our education. It’s like any other muscle— the more you use it, the stronger it will become.
Interviewer: What is intuition and how does someone come to trust theirs?
Avi: This is a very good question. I’m not sure I know the right answer, but I can give you my explanation. First of all, do you know how many brains we have?
We have the head brain, the heart brain, and the gut-brain. The brain is defined scientifically as if you have a certain amount of neurons and synapses and if you are utilizing neural transmitters.
The brain has around 86 billion neurons, the heart has around 40 000, and the gut has approximately 300,000. What research shows is that the heart brain and gut-brain influence the head brain significantly with a ratio of 8:2. The gut-brain mostly embodies existential fears. If we can learn to integrate both logic and emotion, I think that’s the process of forming intuition. Best described, intuition is when you let go of your cognition, and simply allow all of the three brains to synergize, whilst emotionally integrating and analyzing all the relevant knowledge. This knowledge is typically kept as emotion.
The emotional element of knowledge is important to note because typically memory consolidation is highly correlated with emotions.
Interviewer: You’ve invented systems and advised entrepreneurs for the greater part of your life. How do you contrast that to teaching college students? Do you think there are better ways students can be equipped through their education to succeed in the world of entrepreneurship?
Avi: I think that different people fit different methods. If someone is highly autodidactic, and they can learn on their own, they can. I’m not a doctor, but I learned medicine and neurosurgery to the point where it was good enough.
Now, when you look at the way that we’re being taught, there is not much difference between the 22nd century and the 16th century. You have a class with the teacher lecturing at the front. The biggest difference is that back then, we had an attention span of ten minutes and now we have less than 10 seconds. A system that has not changed the way they perceive and serve their customer, which is the students, is very unacceptable.
Now I teach in universities and it’s not my intention to change the system. However, I teach knowing and learning about the brain, in a way that targets memory consolidation and the attention span of my students. It all depends on what knowledge you want them to take from your lesson.
There is a huge difference between teaching management to teaching maths or physics, but what I tried to do is connect everything to emotions, try to get them as involved and participative as could be, and try to activate them as much as I can. There are no boring, long lectures, none whatsoever. When you look at the results, they enjoy it much more. They are connected, they stay over time, and they ask questions because of their curiosity. I don’t know, but I assume that their memory consolidation is significantly better.
What was the transition like going from a full-time entrepreneur to an investor? What do you think is the largest factor that has helped you get these companies to IPO (in which you have several times)? Is there a common challenge Medtech startups face from your experience (i.e. upstream marketing)?
Avi: Yes. Since I’m a contrarian I would disagree with you. I don’t consider myself an investor because I know finance and I can manage finance, but I’m here to try and improve the world. I would choose the entrepreneurs and the strategies that I think can make a major change because this world is so conservative and it takes eons to adopt something new. Hence, I would typically bet on quantum leap solutions, and not something that is here for tomorrow.
I try to complement entrepreneurs in whatever they need: knowledge and contacts. I typically like to get involved at very early stages and to significantly influence the strategy because most companies disregard what they don’t know. In any company, and especially in the medical field, the go to market phase is the most expensive and risky. With that in mind, I like going back to the drawing board, thinking of a critical need and correspondingly, a solution that can become a standard and can enjoy significant revenues.
The next thing I look at is the regulatory barriers and I try to define the offering: typically as a roadmap to go under the radar or simple clearances. I look at finance and all the various factors that influence the plan. The market is number one, regulations number two, and technology comes last, and why is that? Because I have more control of the technology than the regulations, and even less so, the market. I start with the most expensive and most resistant. Then I work backward. I’ve helped many entrepreneurs for free with love and if it sticks then I will join.
Can you speak a little bit about your decision to leave your first venture? Was it difficult to “call it quits”, especially given it was a project you poured your soul into?
Avi: It was extremely difficult, as it was my dream, my baby and it was unique. On one hand, it was very successful, but on the other hand, certain factors were killing me in the process.
There I was again, working too many hours and distressing myself, and not sleeping because of my worries. There were major disagreements between myself and some of the team members. I know I also made certain strategic mistakes, such as the Neuro Wellness field being right but being too narrow and futuristic. We didn’t have any deal flow. I had to co-invent companies to be able to invest. It’s not sustainable, nor does it make sense.
There were many internal battles, lost sleep for months and finally, after talking with some of the investors, I decided I had to quit. It was extremely difficult for me because I felt like I was deserting a sinking ship. The next day after I quit, I started sleeping again. I started to take responsibility. What did I do wrong and where can I improve the next time? Based on these learnings, I found a way to live in accordance with my health.
Interviewer: It’s easy to deflect responsibility and shift the blame on others, which in this case you did the absolute opposite of.
Avi: From that experience, I learned to hire slow and fire fast. Take a lot of time before you marry someone or hire someone and if you see the first signs that something is wrong, don’t continue. It’s not healthy for you nor is it healthy for the other person or the company. But it’s so much easier said than done. I am teaching this and I can’t execute it myself and that was difficult. The second thing I learned is, don’t try to change people. Accept and respect them for who they are and if it works it works, and if it doesn’t work you can only compliment them.
The only thing I can do is take responsibility for myself. This is what I did so it’s not as admirable as the way that you described it, it was more about taking responsibility in whatever I could.
What started as a provoking conversation about surviving a brain tumor, invention, and investing methodology, turned into a deep reflection on the power of taking self-responsibility. With numerous companies under his belt, Avi was no stranger to mistakes and mishaps in the internal workings behind successful, and sometimes not-so-successful companies, but from each experience, he has only come out with more resilience and more ideas to add to his teachings on life.
He continues his journey with only a smile and steadfast determination in coming up with the next best technology to solve the world’s most enduring health problems.