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Medtronic CEO on partnering with Elon Musk at the height of COVID-19

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Medtronic CEO Geoff Martha joins 'Influencers with Andy Serwer' to discuss his experience working with Elon Musk to build ventilators at the height of the pandemic.

Video Transcript

ANDY SERWER: You and I, Geoff, talked a few months ago about Medtronic, early in the pandemic, producing one third of the ventilators in the United States, and you partnered with Tesla and SpaceX to ramp up production. Tell us about those early days and any contact you had with the White House, et cetera.

GEOFF MARTHA: Sure. Sure, well, yeah, I was just, I just was about to take over, just to take in over a CEO of Medtronic in the spring of 2020. And right at that same time, the pandemic was peaking, and there was a-- lately, a lot of talk of vaccines and all that. But back then, there's a lot of unknowns, and everybody was focused on what is COVID, how deadly is it. And ventilators were critical-- still are an important part of the therapy, the treatment for patients, but back then, we used-- the health care use of-- ventilators a lot more.

We've since learned how we can treat patients without them so much, which is good, but back then, there was a huge shortage of ventilators. And it was a Sunday afternoon, in a period of an hour, I got calls, blocked calls, calls from the White House, and other, other government officials around the world, heads of state from around the world, and a lot of hospital administrators, governors in the United States, all in the span of an hour, an hour and a half on a Sunday afternoon. And it started with an announcement out of New York City, that New York City Governor Cuomo and one of the hospital CEOs in New York City said, they needed 500,000 ventilators just for New York City.

Just as an order of magnitude, at that time, again, we were like one third of the world's supply, and we're making 200 a week. And so it was a big moment for us, and so we, we put a SWAT team together on this and met all the time, several times a day, 24 hours a day, really trying to figure out how can we ramp up, dramatically ramp up our supply of ventilators. Then in the end, we were able to get that 200 a week up to 1,000 a week, and in just a couple of weeks, which was pretty amazing.

And then, we, as part of this, we decided to open source one of our ventilators, so put all the designs on the internet. For a technology company, that's fairly unusual, but it was, it was the decision was, hey, it was a health crisis. It was a human crisis around the world, and we wanted to be, we didn't want to be the company that put profits before patients and public health. And so we made that decision and it's been a great decision for us, and, and from that, came some of these partnerships. I'd say three types of partnerships.

One was like innovation related, like Intel came in and helped us put a new chip on the ventilator, so we can operate the ventilator remotely. So nurses didn't have to go into the ICU, with aerosolized COVID in the air, and monitor those patients and change the ventilator settings remotely. That was one.

Another would be supply chain related, so that's where Tesla or that's where SpaceX comes in is they are able to help make, for us, a critical part of that ventilator. It's the same part they use in their spacecraft. Because if you're thinking about it, a spacecraft has a life support system on it. A ventilator is a life support system, so there-- didn't think about that, but some engineer in SpaceX, when they saw our plans online, they made the connection. And next thing you know, I'm on the phone with Elon Musk, and he really became a good partner of ours.

And then the third type of partnership was manufacturing, and we partnered with local manufacturers around the world, Bangladesh, India, places like that, Canada, the United States to take our production and amplify it. So I mentioned, we got our production of 5x, but that still wasn't enough. And that's when we were able to tap these other companies, and support them, and ramping up production of our ventilators.

So in the end, really proud of how we handled it, learned a lot, and so that's the story. That's the little, long answer, but that's actually the short version.

ANDY SERWER: That's an incredible narrative. I just got to ask you a quick follow up. So talking to Elon Musk on the phone about supplying your ventilators, what was that like? What did you guys talk about?

GEOFF MARTHA: Well, he just wanted to validate-- I wanted to validate they're serious because we, we were going to make alternative plans if, if they couldn't come through. And he wanted to validate that we really needed it, and they could really be of assistance. But he was [COUGHS] very supportive and very easy to talk to, and I was surprised given all the businesses he has helped, how much he knew about this one part.

And he told me the whole story about why, why are you even in this business. And he told us the whole story, how he saw the supply chain was not very reliable-- and he used different description than that but-- and decided to insource it and-- because he didn't think he'd rely on the supply chain, which was the very issue that we were dealing with. And so, I know you read a lot about it in the press and all that, but in this situation, he was very down to earth, very friendly, and very deep into the details, and was very helpful.

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