Dr. Neal Kassell, founder, Focused Ultrasound Foundation

In September, the Tom Tom Founders Festival announced the winners of its 2015 Founding Cville award which highlights local artists, civic leaders and entrepreneurs “whose groundbreaking and original work has impacted Charlottesville and the world.” Charlottesville Tomorrow is republishing the profiles of the nine honorees.

Dr. Neal Kassell, founder, Focused Ultrasound Foundation

It’s hard to imagine that someone without a high-school degree and blind in one eye can become an award winning neurosurgeon. Sixty-nine year old Neal Kassell is not only a medical doctor, he’s also a distinguished UVa professor with over 500 research publications, and a serial-founder with experience starting everything from online medical companies to cutting-edge non-profit organizations.

His most recent endeavor, the Focused Ultrasound Foundation (FUSF), breaks the mold in more ways than one: it’s a new model for treatment that could revolutionize therapies for many diseases and impact the lives of millions of people, but it’s also a new technology in an industry that resists change.

Founded in 2006, its mission is to improve the lives of millions of people with serious medical disorders. Focused ultrasound is a noninvasive therapy that offers tremendous promise– better surgical precision and outcomes, than conventional invasive surgery or radiation.  

Like most foundations, FUF relies on donations.  It, however, is unique in its entrepreneurial approach. By awarding grants and support to researchers throughout the world, Dr. Kassell orchestrates a worldwide community dedicated to advancing the field. Dr. Kassell proves just how much is possible when one ignores the naysayers.

Describe the Focused Ultrasound Foundation (FUSF)?

The Focused Ultrasound Foundation promotes and explores the use of focused ultrasound: an early-stage, non-invasive therapeutic approach which could completely revolutionize the medical industry by offering an alternative to surgery and radiation.

How did you start the Focused Ultrasound Foundation.

It wasn’t a straight path. We wanted to create a center for Focused Ultrasound, similar to the Gamma Ray Center, but the gears of UVa were grinding slowly. I was frustrated—some major medical advancements can take up to 50 years before becoming widely adopted, and that is far too long to wait for something as helpful as Focused Ultrasound. The evolution of any major, disruptive therapeutic technology is a glacial process.

I knew people were interested in Focused Ultrasound, and I knew where to raise funds—the problem was where to put it all. So Bill Crutchfield suggested I start a non-profit, at least until the University could catch up. This is a new model, and that’s a part of the issue. If you’re talking about creating an environment of risk, there’s nothing more we could do to make it more risky.

We looked at all the steps, all the organizations, and all the barriers. Then we created a series of programs that would address the key roadblocks. By analyzing the potential problems and preparing specifically for each one, we were able to start far more smoothly.

How do you create a company culture of success?

We’ve created a culture that is results-oriented and patient centric. It’s not easy to create a culture that is results-oriented; everybody likes to fall back on process.

We’ve also created the organization with the philosophy that As attract As and Bs attract Cs. Today, all 20 people hired here are A players.

Nothing made me pause—never look back. Never.

Dr. Neal Kassell

Dr. Neal Kassell

What are the traits of successful “A Players”?

A players are people that have four characteristics: They can work independently and don’t need too much direction to get the job done. They can carry the freight; they can do the work, even if it’s hard or takes time. There are atmospherics; they have to have the right chemistry to get along with the other crazy people in the organization. And I never hire people that I can’t fire; hiring your best friend’s wife, for example, is a bad idea.

The people I’m interested in are people who are young in spirit if not in age; who have not had their creativity bounded by too much education; who have done something and failed—then bounced back from that; who are pioneers and understand that the way to achieve excellence is through hard work, innovation, and risk-taking.

What were your earlier successes before FUSF?

Let’s not forget the failures. In 1970, when I was a medical student, I started an electronic medical record company. This was a few decades before the right time to do that. It was a quasi-success; it ended up getting sold to a much larger company. Depending on when you invested, some people lost a lot of money, and it was a failure for them; some people made a lot of money, and it was a success. For me, I learned how hard it was to start a company from scratch and the importance of timing.

You’ve successfully raised funds many times, what’s the secret?

It’s about the idea and finding the right people to match it. First you find the idea, then run it by a large number of people to get their opinions and advice. And that never stops—it’s a continuous process. Because we’re always asking the question: is there a way to do things better?

Making sure there is significant interest in an idea, and getting as much approval as possible is important—then it’s a matter of not accepting “no.” You have to be persistent and not fear failure. You have to know that you can go back to zero, and you have to be okay with that.

Has failure made you pause?

Nothing made me pause—never look back. Never. People keep telling me: “you can’t do this, it’s impossible.” I hear “no” continuously. They told me I couldn’t be a neurosurgeon because I can only see out of one eye and don’t have depth perception. They told me I couldn’t be a doctor without a high school diploma. They told me I couldn’t get my PhD because I don’t have an undergraduate degree. They told me I couldn’t start a neurological institute at UVa. I always hear “no.”

How did you develop the ability to move past failure and rejection so easily?

I think it has to do with growing up poor. There was a period of my life when I didn’t have food—I was essentially on the streets. I was 16 when I moved out of my parents’ house to work at a medical research facility. The facility was moving from New Jersey to Philadelphia, so I had the opportunity to go with them. We would do these experiments at night and I used to sleep on the conference room table or on operating tables. I didn’t have an official place to live and I wasn’t earning enough money to afford a lot of food; I remember eating the food we would feed the monkeys, or going to Father Divine’s Mission.

I can tell who grew up in modest circumstances and are wildly successful because they’re not afraid—they know they can go back and start over.

Founding Cville culminated in an award ceremony at the Tom Tom Founders Festival Fall Block Party
Festival director Paul Beyer (at right) announces 2015 Founding Cville award winners at the Ix Art Park – Sept. 25, 2015