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Pitching medical devices that save lives – ‘Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?’

Dan Sauda was the college radio play-by-play voice of the men’s and women’s St. Bonaventure University basketball teams in the mid to late 1990s. He interned at ESPN his senior year as a journalism and mass media major. Then he graduated and went into air express, pharmaceutical and medical device sales.

“My goal was to always set myself up for the next big job – to get where I am now,” said Sauda, a Hamburg native and current town resident. He became a national sales manager at age 37 for the new medical division of Gorbel Inc., a suburban Rochester company started by Orchard Park native David Reh. Under Reh’s son, Brian, Gorbel boomed into a multimillion-dollar international player in the material handling industry.

“Gorbel is most well-known for its work station cranes, rails and fall-protection equipment. One of our biggest products is called G-Force. That product is generally seen on the production lines at Ford, GM, Caterpillar, John Deere. Essentially, it’s a work station crane that allows one worker to lift something that they normally wouldn’t be able to move on their own and place it into other spots with precision and dexterity,” said Sauda, who’s father, Bob, is the semi-retired Southtowns insurance executive.

Gorbel came calling on Sauda in the spring of 2014 as the company neared completion of its first medical device, SafeGait, a ceiling-mounted, body weight support device that improves gait, balance and the ability to walk for those who have suffered strokes, traumatic brain injuries and similar challenges. Sauda since has worked mostly from his home and Gorbel headquarters in Victor, and traveled the country, successfully landing deals in three of the top rehab hospitals in the nation and several facilities in Upstate New York.

He and his Frontier High School sweetheart, Stephanie, married 15 years ago and have four children, Grace, 11, Andrew, 9, Sophie, 6, and Thomas, almost 5.

Q. What was your paid ESPN internship like?

It was my job to read pretty much every big magazine that people would read – People, Time, Forbes – and I had to scan those with a highlighter. Everywhere the word “ESPN” was, I had to flag it, photocopy it. It was grunt work, but it taught me how to read better and become a better writer. And even in business today, medical sales, writing is critical. Being able to write a simple email when you’re putting quotes out there, when you communicate with people trying to explain what your product is, being able to write in a way that catches people’s eyes when you want them to look at your product further is critical. ... I got to meet Chris Berman, Mike Tirico, Dan Patrick. I went to the ESPN Christmas party. I thought I’d died and went to heaven. My head was on a swivel. Then I’m sitting there talking to Chris Berman about my idol, Jim Kelly, and Berman is just such a huge Bills fan. It was a great story to tell people when I started doing job interviews.

Q. What caught your eye when it came to medical device and pharmaceutical sales?

Being able to sell something that matters. Interacting with brilliant individuals: doctors.

Q. How different is selling pharmaceuticals than devices?

It is night and day. The majority of reps in medical devices are commission-based. In pharmaceuticals, you’re given a large base salary that you can pay your bills on and live, and you get bonuses based on achieving your sales goals. If you’re a hard worker in pharmaceuticals, you’re going to achieve those goals. In device sales, if you’re not earning people’s business, you’re not making money. A pill will change somebody’s life, make them feel better, but a device? Depending on what it is – and there are tons of different devices, defibrillators and pacemakers for example – without some of those, people are dying. They’re tangible. If you walk into a doctor’s office and somebody slaps a blood-pressure cuff on you and the doctor says, “You have high blood pressure – a silent killer – and have to take a medicine for the rest of your life” that can save your life. When your joint hurts and it limits you in daily life and from activities you want to do – golf, ski, bike – and a surgeon gives you a new knee, once you get through the surgery pain, you’re life is changed. In today’s world with the baby boomers, they’re not like our grandparents who sat around in the Barcalounger and waited for the big day to come. Today, people retire and want to live to 100. They want to golf, they want to swim, they want to bike. You’re not going to tell them they can’t ski. But unfortunately, their bodies are giving out, so they need some help. Who doesn’t want to be part of that?

Q. You made the switch at the right time?

In the late 90s, early 2000s, the pharmaceutical companies started to consolidate. They went through a boom but now those innovated products of the early ‘90s were coming off patent. They didn’t need all these sales people. I went through two layoffs. I survived them both. I had to lay people off. It was a tough thing to do to people who did nothing wrong. I knew at some point that my number probably could be up. I had good numbers, great performance reviews, but one of the gentlemen who was a mentor to me in Connecticut was with the company for almost 30 years and he got let go. ... It’s all in the numbers and you can’t control it.

Q. You say you might make an investment in time and money with some of these devices and get nothing?

Absolutely. More often than not, I’d say that is the case. But the thing about medical device companies is that it’s not just about the product they’re producing, it’s about the education of these doctors, too.

We’re individuals with bachelor’s and some master’s degrees and we’re working with some of the brightest individuals in the world with degrees you can never even imagine, and they’re going to go in and cut somebody open based on maybe some advice you gave them. It’s pretty powerful stuff.

Q. What would training look like for a doctor looking for a new hip implant or new knee implant?

Patients don’t understand the amount of work surgeons put in post-graduate. Their learning never stops. They earn every last penny and then some. In this case, additional training would be threefold. It would be local, regional and national basis. First, they would meet with a local rep and sales team. They’d probably want to try it. It’s as much about the instruments as the implants. They would try it on a cadaver and then they’d attend a regional course. Then they’d try a national course with surgeons who are the biggest names in the business. There are new devices and surgery techniques that will get you up walking and around faster, specifically in hip replacement. It’s called the direct anterior approach. It’s less invasive.

Q. So medical devices are a way to diversify Gorbel?

Sure. Medical devices are a growing industry and baby boomers are getting older.

Q. Talk about the SafeGait harness device.

This is our first device and we’re launching new ones this year. This product is an off-weighting device that allows patients and therapists to treat neurologically based disorders safely and efficiently. SafeGait brings new technology to the physical rehabilitation market. We do have two competitors. The conventional wisdom about how to treat gait and balance is with multiple therapists, with a gait belt. It’s archaic. It’s time-consuming. It’s inefficient. And the number one thing is it’s not safe, not for the therapist, not for the patient. The literature states, the harder the patient works, the faster a patient recovers. By off-loading a portion of their weight, SafeGait allows them to freely move about at different gaits, do balance and transfer activities and to fall safely. If they fell, this product has proprietary software built into it that catches them. It’s fall protection.

Patient-driven recovery is critical. When patients are at home and fall, we won’t be there to catch them, self-correct and get to a standing position. The SafeGait allows them to do that while they undergo physical therapy. It challenges them to do a whole host of human activities – stairs, transfers, gait tasks – and the best part about it is that with insurance companies these days, data is critical. Data that shows outcomes. We designed SafeGait to come with a proprietary patient management software that measures the success of the patient and the therapy.

It’s a capital device, so it costs a six-figure dollar amount. We call it the “C-suite.” The CEOs, CFOs, COOs of hospitals get involved in buying this because whenever you have a product this expensive they ultimately have to sign off on it. They want to know, “How is this going to differentiate us among our facility peers. How is it going to make us money? What is the return on investment?”

Q. Why are many medical devices so expensive?

A lot of it has to do with research and development. I think what the general public needs to understand both with pharmaceuticals and medical devices is the risk and reward that are taken on by organizations and interests. SafeGait cost millions of dollars in development and that doesn’t guarantee that the return on investment is going to be there. The burden of that lies squarely on the shoulders of the organization.

Q. What types of devices do you expect to start trending this year?

I see a lot of the technology moving toward ways to do procedures. Robotics is big. That impacts patients in terms of minimally invasive surgeries that will help them get up and around more quickly. I think what patients really want to see is, “What types of procedures and what types of products are really going to allow me to do my normal daily activities and get back to my normal life?,” at least anybody who has an injury, goes to their doctor and says, “How can you make me the way I used to be?” That’s basically what it comes down to. People that get into a SafeGait or a product like it, were golfers, swimmers, bikers, skiers. They want to get back to doing it. That where medical device companies are really focusing their efforts.