A Conversation With SBI’s New Chief Commercial Officer James “Bucky” Polk
Another exciting addition to the Scientific Bioprocessing, Inc. (SBI) leadership team is James “Bucky” Polk, who joined the organization as its Chief Commercial Officer (CCO) in July 2020 after a successful three-year tenure at Philips.
Prior to joining SBI, Polk was the VP, Global Key Opinion Leader Engagement of Philips’ Medical Device division. He joined industry giant Philips after a decade of success with Spectranetics, a smaller, publicly-traded vascular intervention and cardiac lead management company that was acquired by Philips in 2017. While at Spectranetics, Polk served as Area Vice President of Global Coronary where he grew the business 30% each year into a $26M division. Earlier in his career, Polk held sales leadership roles at Abbott and Boston Scientific, where he generated a strong track record of sales success.
Polk brings more than 20 years of commercial healthcare experience and a diverse array of skills to his role as SBI’s new CCO. He has worn many hats across his successful career and his experience working for smaller companies like Spectranetics, and industry giants like Philips, Boston Scientific and Abbott, has imbued him with a unique perspective that he can leverage to drive commercial success at SBI.
We caught up with Polk for a conversation about his path to SBI, his views on leadership and the future he sees for SBI’s commercial operations.
Tell us a bit about your journey to becoming SBI’s new CCO.
I’ve always been a commercially focused person in the roles that I’ve had. I’ve been fortunate with the companies I’ve worked for in the med device world. All my time in the field in Chicago with Boston Scientific and Abbott as a sales leader was a phenomenal experience. And then I went in-house with Spectranetics to participate in a pseudorotation program. I was interested in doing this to get more exposure internally so that I could ultimately be a better commercially-focused person.
In the last five years with Spectranetics and the last three with Philips I’ve had seven roles from short sprints to longer, process-related work. I really enjoy the idea of wearing many hats; some days you’re rolling up your sleeves and doing a job you did 20 years ago and other days you’re doing stuff that’s highly strategic. I’m not above doing anything. I love pulling it all together. I’ve gone from a company of 500 at Spectranetics to 70,000 at Philips; I had a great time at Philips but these experiences all led me to that place where I wanted to go back and go smaller.
The SBI opportunity came at just the right time. I’ve known John for over 30 years and we thought it would be fun to do something together. We’re very different and we thought we could be complementary pieces of a biger puzzle. When the SBI opportunity came up I was excited about joining a smaller company, using my transferable skills, being able to wear many hats and to build something better.
How would you characterize your leadership style and what other leaders have inspired you across your career?
I strive to be authentic, transparent, inspiring and I’m never too good to do something. If I need to go and stock the shelves at the supermarket, I’ll do it. I’ve never been an ‘Ivory Tower’ guy. If we’re not very good at something, I don’t sugar coat anything. I like to call out what is and then make a plan for how we’re going to solve a problem or overcome a challenge together.
If you go back to any of my physician customers in the past, I think they would center on trust to describe our relationship. I believe that many commercial folks over play the “they like me” card. I’m less worried about the like-factor and far more interested in the trust factor. The customers need to know that you’ll recommend the best thing for them whether you are selling it or not.
There are two people that inspired me from a leadership standpoint.
Scott Hutton, the current CEO of Biodesix, who I worked with at Spectranetics, is a great example of leadership. Scott was being groomed to be the CEO at Spectranetics but we got sold six months after he joined the company. He left a great gig and came in to be the heir apparent CEO and three weeks in he was told that Philips was likely buying the company. Those not under NDA about the potential acquisition had no idea it was coming. And Scott’s behavior gave us no indication that things were about to change. The way he led, the way he committed and the humility with which he led during this time are some of the best examples of leadership and emotional intelligence I’ve seen. That was true leadership under fire.
Another inspirational leader I was lucky to work with was Donna Ford-Serbu who is now at Bolder Surgical. Donna helped spearhead the pseudo-rotation for me while I was at Spectranetics. Donna’s investment in people development was incredible. She was authentic, transparent and had a willingness to sit down and just listen. Donna was emblematic of all these leadership qualities.
What are some of the first actions you’ve taken as the new CCO?
Well, leaning on Sandy Williams’ experience and expertise was important, for sure. I need to get up to speed as fast as I can, and I need to know as much as I need to know. The philosophy in the med device world is to know enough to be dangerous and to know when to say I don’t know what you just said. I don’t need to be Sandy; we’ve got brilliant people that are way smarter than I’ll ever be. I need to get to that competent point as fast as I can. That’s job number one.
We’re also actively building a team and a product line. If I came in and said this is going to be our sales structure, or this is going to be our commercial plan, without taking stock of current state, that would be a complete miss on my part. I can implement a whole lot of commercialization plans, but I need to listen to our team, to understand their experience and how they think we should approach the space. I think it is so important that our team understands the ‘why.’ I’m out in Pittsburgh right now listening and taking stock of things.
I really believe in the saying, ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’ I think the team expected me to come in and tell them how we’re going to market, but that’s the dumbest thing I could do. I want the team to say I’m a pretty good guy and I want to go shoulder-to-shoulder with him and go knock down that wall. That’s more important to me than any tactical stuff right now.
Talk to us about SBI’s sensors and closed loop system and why you believe these products can transform cell culture and bioprocessing.
This is the million dollar question. I love what I’m seeing right now. My answer might change in a few months, but right now the question is what information could we be providing and what do we think we are providing? We need to understand that our customers might not be aware of why they should care about our products.
We need to start with why.
Now it’s a matter of helping folks understand why they should care. If there are 20 markets out there and 12 don’t really matter, don’t get after those 12. Go after the eight where we can help someone make a difference.
My impression is also that we’re saying there might be a different and better methodology than what some of our customers have been doing for 20 years. This might be daunting to the customer; we might be moving their cheese enough that they’re asking, ‘Is what I’ve been doing all this time wrong?’ This shouldn’t be a humiliating story; it should be more like ‘this new way is pretty cool and better.’ However, we commercialize, it’s not about hammering someone to do it our way — it’s about trust and customizing what we do to truly help a customer.
In your initial thinking, what are the bigest upcoming commercial challenges for SBI?
Building awareness is a big piece. Establishing why customers should care is another. And assessing a customer’s response to how much we are ‘moving their cheese’. To me it’s those three things. For one customer, it might be all three and for another it might just be one.
We also need to focus. Our sensors could be used by anyone under the sun, but you’re never going to be successful that way. What are our vital two or three markets we should go after? Where should we play? So we need to determine what markets we should go after, then educate these markets on why they should care and work with them to overcome their resistance to transitioning from their traditional processes to a new and better way.
We will ultimately end up in a layered market approach. It’s a matter of not going after 20 things but maybe 5 and then adapt as we go. You have to have a focused plan and then adapt. Those are some of our big challenges at the moment in addition to COVID-19’s impact on our business and our customers.
I see sales as A+B=C. If you do your fundamentals really well, your A and B, C takes care of itself. I think right now we’re in deep discovery mode of what are A and B. We’re super confident in what A and B can be, but it’s more about what they should be.
I know we’ll get there, we’re all ‘figure-it-out’ people here. Team alignment is critical. We’re a small enough team that everyone should have input and have buy-in on what A and B are so we can get to C more efficiently.