A photo of BD EVP and Chief Technology Officer Elizabeth McCombs.
BD EVP and Chief Technology Officer Elizabeth McCombs [Photo courtesy of BD]

In the opening keynote for DeviceTalks Boston 2024 today, BD


EVP and Chief Technology Officer Elizabeth McCombs offered advice for building a medtech career inside a big company.

Reflecting on her 20-year career at Johnson & Johnson MedTech (the world’s second-largest medical device manufacturer) before joining BD, McCombs advised aspiring medtech leaders to strive to deeply understand customers and the clinical state “almost as well as the customer.”

“It’s easy in a big company to get internally focused and get caught up in the technology,” she said in a live interview with DeviceTalks Editorial Director Tom Salemi. “But when we take the time to define an important need and then solve it, that’s where the success comes.”

“We can get ahead of ourselves with our career and thinking about what’s the next step,” she continued, “but to me, it’s been very consciously focusing on the role that I have and delivering results, being as rigorous and excellent as I can be in that role, and then with that your results will be noticed.”

She also encouraged others to remain open to new opportunities, even if they think they might not be ready.

“In a lot of cases, my leaders saw the work that I was doing and pulled me along maybe faster than I was ready to move,” she said. “But I took that leap of faith with their sponsorship and guidance and confidence in me to be able to take on those new challenges. It’s important to step out of our comfort zone.”

McCombs told a story from her time at Johnson & Johnson MedTech illustrating the importance of taking on new challenges, as well as the impact senior leaders can have in elevating talent.

“I was a technical leader when I was coming back from maternity leave with my first daughter — who’s now 19 by the way, and studying engineering as a freshman so I couldn’t be prouder of her — [and] Martin Madden, who you may know is a big leader within medtech for Johnson & Johnson, really saw the opportunity for me to step into more of a project leadership role in cross-functional team leadership,” she said.

“You could imagine certain leaders might say, ‘Hey, it’s time for her to take a break,’ but it was really more of an acceleration opportunity for me,” she continued. “I got to work on external innovation. I actually took a step out for a couple years at J&J to work on strategy and new business development, setting up new growth platforms in robotics — which I know is a hot topic as always in our industry — and interventional oncology,  getting out of the comfort zone and building the toolbox and skill set to be able to continue to contribute.”

In 2019, BD Chief Technology Officer John DeFord called to recruit McCombs to join the medical segment at BD.

“BD’s actually a well-kept secret within medtech. I thought of it primarily as the 125-year-old company and syringes and catheters which are very much the backbone of healthcare. But when I spent time with John, I really learned about the transformative M&A that the company has done over the last decade, both with CareFusion as well as Bard.”

“And in particular, what I was drawn to is the footprint of digital and connected products that BD has. That was where I wanted to spend the next decade of my career, bringing digital technology and analytics and solutions to make healthcare more efficient and more personalized for patients. So when I learned about BD having over 3 million connected products in the U.S., being connected to over 70% of hospital EMRs, I was like, ‘Hey, this is a real foundation for us to build upon.’”

McCombs had spent two decades at J&J, building relationships with “all these amazing people that I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to work with.” But she said she overestimated how challenging it would be to break into a new company.

“BD has a very similar value system, very focused on the patient,” she said. “The boldness of our CEO, Tom Polen, in driving innovation, changing the portfolio up, it’s been very supportive and a pretty natural transition. But I’ll always have a special place in my heart for J&J.”

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McCombs also discussed her path into medtech, managing innovation, medtech sustainability, connected care opportunities, the state of BD and the company’s future.

Look for more coverage from this keynote and DeviceTalks Boston 2024 at MassDevice and Medical Design & Outsourcing in the days and weeks ahead.