Entrepreneurial engineer creates innovative, minimally invasive pump with potential to help millions of heart failure patients
by Mary Denny
“Strive for PERFECT but don’t let it get in the way of DONE.” That’s Ben Hertzog’s credo, and it’s a concept he feels is important for entrepreneurs to grasp. It’s also sound advice that has worked for this engineer-entrepreneur who always “wanted to build stuff” and has created the first non-surgical, minimally invasive heart pump.
This heart pump, Aortix, started out as a “idea on a napkin” in 2010, with Ben workshopping a prototype at home. But today, as president and CEO of Houston-based biotechnology company Procyrion, Ben has just overseen the first in-human study of the device. “It was pretty exciting to see something I first built in my garage implanted into a human patient,” Ben says. Born in the U.K. but raised in Houston with a physicist/engineer dad, Ben grew up fixing things, “wrenching” on cars, and taking things apart and “sometimes putting them back together.” There was never much doubt that he would become an engineer. A self-described math-science geek, he was drawn to Trinity for its focus on liberal arts—“I was self-aware enough to realize I needed someone to make me take classes outside of science”—and because the engineering science department emphasized design and building, which played to his strengths. Not wanting to squander his opportunities, Ben “hunkered down and studied hard.” But not so hard that he didn’t have time for the social fraternity Kappa Kappa Delta, “a very influential part of [his] Trinity experience.” He credits KKD with best friends, life lessons, and leadership skills. As pledge class president, social chairman, and president, he had the opportunity to “be a leader, make tough decisions, make a few mistakes, and make a difference.”
As for his major, Ben remembers professor Richard Swope, his senior design adviser in the engineering science department, as “tough but an awesome teacher, mentor, and a great person.” Despite miscalculating just how tough Swope would be on his own senior design team, Ben says he learned a lot, had a ton of fun working on it, and credits the project with lighting the fire that set him on the path to biomedical engineering.
That path led straight to Brown University and a Ph.D. in the artificial organs, biomaterials, and cellular technology program, where Ben’s lab focused on industry and practical applications and gave him the opportunity to work with a number of start-ups in the New England area. Seeking to hone his business skills, he joined McKinsey & Co., a global management consulting firm, where he relished the “sink or swim environment,” and his appetite for entrepreneurism was awakened. Eventually, he joined one of his clients, the Baylor College of Medicine’s venture capital arm, where he started and invested in life science companies and “got to do everything but drive the ship myself.”
In 2010, Ben was introduced to Procyrion and a concept for a new heart pump. He didn’t know if it would work, but he did know how to figure out how it could work. With seed funding from Fannin Innovation Studio in Houston, he engaged one of Fannin’s Ph.D. interns and set to work building a prototype in his garage—“textbook startup stuff.” Testing at the Texas Heart Institute proved successful enough to earn two additional rounds of financing.
After completing the first in-human study of Aortix, Ben and his 11 employees are gearing up for a larger pilot study to begin next year. If all goes well, Ben sees Procyrion bringing Aortix to market in the coming years.
Due to the intense focus and hard work required for such an endeavor, Ben has had to dial back his civic and professional activities, which have included, among others, board service for the MIT Enterprise Forum of Texas, the Brown University Alumni Association, and guest lectures at Brown and Rice Universities. Life outside of work includes his wife, an oil field service executive, two sons aged 9 and 4, and occasional time outs for travel, photography, bird hunting, and fly fishing. And then there are the antique cars, “my true passion,” he acknowledges with grin. He races his vintage 1963 Lotus Elan and is “wrenching” in his garage with his sons on a 1929 MG-M Type that he plans to race when finished.
Active, committed, proud of his family, and building a company that is creating something of value, Ben says, “I feel like I am doing something important. This device has the potential to help millions of very sick heart failure patients. That makes it very easy to go to work every day.”
You may reach Ben at ben [at] procyrion.com.