Matt Brokaw recently marked his one-year anniversary as CEO of Aerin Medical. To recognize the milestone, Matt sat down to answer some questions and share his reflections on the past year.
Q: You joined Aerin Medical as CEO just over one year ago, at the start of the pandemic, just as medical care and working environments were being upended. What was that experience like?
A: The seismic shift created a very different first week than I had planned with colleagues and physicians. I was with my family in Menlo Park, establishing new shelter-in-place routines and trying to make sense out of what was going on. During my first month with Aerin, it felt like every day of the pandemic brought alarming new discoveries and developments—new challenges for employees, our society, and the clinical specialty that we serve. Elective procedures were cancelled in waves through hospitals, surgery centers, and then clinics, as physicians and facilities devoted themselves to critical patient care. We learned that otolaryngologists (ENT physicians) were at particular risk, both clinically and also economically, as almost all of them had to completely stop working. Our company had to be very intentional and remain focused on steering through the crisis.
Considering the monumental challenges we faced in the past 12 months, I am enormously grateful for where we are today. I appreciate the steadfast physician partners that work closely with Aerin. I’ve valued the clear voice and guidance of our society leaders when the path forward for the otolaryngology community was most uncertain. Most importantly, I am so grateful to the entire Aerin team for their support of each other and our customers throughout this intense period. They delivered on important strategic goals, while learning new skills and facing tremendous uncertainty. I am impressed by, and proud of, their grit, creativity, and care, all of which helped pull Aerin through the worst of the pandemic.
Q: How did the company adapt and help employees and customers react to this new unpredictable landscape?
A: Our most urgent priority was to ensure our team’s safety, so we provided avenues for connection and communication to enable remote work. It was critical to preserve routines and relationships, given the physical dislocation, though we didn’t initially know how this would play out over screens. We knew we would lose some connective tissue and team chemistry without the usual access to in-person conversations, but we found that our common condition built bonds that offset at least some of the lost face-to-face connection.
The most gut-wrenching part of my first months at Aerin was the company decision to furlough a large majority of our workforce. With ENT cases dropping to almost zero for a time, we realized we had no choice, but phone calls to employees to let them know were some of the hardest moments of my career. I promised our employees to do everything in my power to get them back, and it was wonderful to call those same people to bring our team back to full employment.
Committing to continuity and communication also proved crucial to allowing our employees to feel seen and heard against the backdrop of a lot of understandable anxiety. We talked in greater depth about business health and progress, and shared insights about broader market conditions and how others in our space were faring. We encouraged employees to ask questions about the issues that weighed on them, like job stability and the fate of the company.
While Aerin was forced to make some tough choices, our physician customers were facing acute challenges of their own. Specifically, otolaryngologists faced increased clinical risk from high viral load in treatment areas and an economic crisis from the second highest rate of procedure cancellations among medical specialties. We spent a lot of time during the height of the pandemic reaching out to physicians to see how we could help. Among a number of efforts on that front, we embarked on practical work to confirm the strong safety profile of our non-invasive devices, to help our customers rekindle practices and patient care with confidence.
Q: What changes brought about during the pandemic do you believe will carry over into the future of the company and/or the field of ENT?
A: A good friend and prominent otolaryngologist recently reminded me that the last mile is always the least crowded. I consider this often when I think about carrying forward a focus on providing incredible service for our customers. That level of care, paired with the innovation of Aerin’s products, provides advantages to clinicians and their patients that are more important than ever before.
I expect that physicians will continue to look for flexibility in how they deliver care and that patients will increasingly seek treatment options they can receive in a doctor’s office. We’ve seen this recently with the launch of RhinAer early last year. Despite all the hurdles you would expect for a new product launch during a global health crisis, RhinAer was incredibly well-received. Not only did RhinAer give physicians a new option for patients that have historically presented challenges, but it also afforded them the ability to do so in the office, surgery center, or hospital. I see that drive toward choice and lower-acuity care continuing.
I also believe the pandemic has brought a renewed focus on prioritizing good health and wellbeing, elevating the importance of respiratory health in particular. Chronic nasal conditions cause debilitating symptoms that erode quality of life. Sleep and the ability to breathe during exercise are often impaired. Physical and mental implications are now compounded by social ones, as the pandemic has sensitized us all to the appearance of illness and congestion. Many sufferers have avoided seeking medical care for this past year, but physicians tell us they’ve started to see new eagerness from patients to get treated.
Q: As you embark on your second year with Aerin Medical, what excites you the most about the future?
A: I cannot wait to spend time with Aerin employees in-person. There are a lot of post-pandemic, in-person “firsts” that I look forward to: our first national meeting, our first holiday party, our first all-hands meeting. Maybe just as exciting for me will be all the small moments between the big events, where I can spend time with employees face-to-face. At its core, we choose this work because we believe in our ability to help physicians improve the lives of their patients. So I also very much look forward to getting out in the field and meeting physicians and patients, to see Aerin’s technology through their eyes and witness first-hand the benefits of our products.
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