December 19, 2012 | The Editors

Michael Free at PATH: a “huge adventure”

Dr. Michael J. Free is becoming PATH’s senior advisor emeritus after more than 30 years as leader of our work in health technologies. Dr. Free began working with PATH at our organization’s inception. Over the course of his career, he has led the development of technologies to address issues in health that range from vaccine delivery and point-of-care diagnostics to ensuring the health of mothers and infants to improving the quality of water and sanitation. Recently, Dr. Free sat down to answer a few questions about his work and the field of global health. This week, he talks about his time at PATH.

Q. What made you decide to work with PATH?

A. Well, it wasn’t so much working with PATH. It was more a matter of joining this huge adventure. Going down that road sounded like an awful lot of fun. It was an awful lot of fun.

Q. What was fun about it?

A. The same sort of fun, I suppose, that the whole organization has been throughout its three decades or more. It had a spirit. It had a mission. It had a huge sense of community, and yet there was a force field of self-directed individuals who were all focused on a single mission. It had principles and a culture that allowed it to survive and thrive through extraordinary hurdles. That made it more satisfying and fulfilling.

Men in formal wear, one holding an award consisting of a crystal globe.
Michael Free, right, accepted a 2003 award from the Tech Museum of Innovation for our work on the Uniject® prefilled injection system. Photo: PATH.

Q. You mentioned PATH’s mission. Has that mission changed over the years?

A. No, not really. The competitive strength of PATH, its distinguishing characteristic, is its longstanding ability to forge partnership between the different sectors—the public sector, the civil sector, and the for-profit sector—and to make those function effectively toward a tangible outcome with benefit for economically developing populations.

Q. Speaking of that, you’ve played an important role in developing more than 80 health technologies while at PATH. What makes PATH so successful at advancing technologies?

A. Well, first of all, let me say it takes a village. No, it doesn’t take a village—it takes a whole city to develop and advance technologies. Trying to sift through whose idea was compelling in what stage is an impossible task. For the most part, my success is because I’ve been able to hire people who are smarter than me. They have the right characteristics: they’re creative, they’re independent, they’re rugged, they’re persistent, they drive to a goal, they’re self-directed. They just need empowering. They need to understand the mission, and then they get at it and you get results.

But we’ve had enough failures also to stay very humble. It’s a very challenging business, and not only because it takes so long. A huge amount of investment goes into translating a technology into a product and then to market it. You could always develop a technology—that was no problem at all.

Q. Is that the easy part?

A. Oh, of course, that’s the easy part. We learned very early on—back in the 80s—that we had to develop the value proposition for what we did as we developed the product, even at the discovery stage. So we started to build teams. Always, all of our teams had business people on them as well as public health people and technologists because we wanted to pay attention to the markets. We realized that unless a technology was ultimately economically and commercially sustainable, you might as well not bother.

Q. Would you talk a bit about some of the technologies that you’re most proud of? Is there anything you’d like people to remember you for?

A. I think of people, not products. I think of the incredible talent that we’ve managed to bring in around technologies and what they’ve been able to achieve and how they’re still at it. How can we empower them? How can we build the right creative culture for them and maintain that culture?

Q. So, you’re most proud of how you’ve been able to manage teams to help them do their work?

A. Yes, I’m proud of the culture that we’ve built. And I think if you were to ask people, that’s the first thing they’d say. It’s been a great place to work. They’ve appreciated the ownership of their work that they’ve been able to achieve here.

Next week: The future in global health, and what you need to be part of it.

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