The Union College Entrepreneurship Organization welcomed businesswoman Cynthia Fisher, the co-founder of Viacord, to campus this past Wednesday for a lecture where she recounted her eclectic career to entrepreneurially curious students and faculty alike.
By co-founding Viacord in 1992 Ms. Fisher created a groundbreaking and somewhat controversial market in private umbilical cord blood banking. Scientists working with Viacord in its earliest stages found that a particular blood in a woman’s afterbirth holds medical properties useful to the treatment of rare forms of cancer and leukemia. Scientists took this discovery as a potential alternative to bone marrow transplants and donations.
Viacord, and private firms like it, constitute a new, $4 billion industry, giving parents the option of storing their baby’s umbilical cord blood as a sort of insurance. Experts, however, remain divided on the true benefits and worth of this new privatized practice.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics the odds of using one’s own cord blood is only about 1 in 200,000, and the majority of medical experts recommend donating to public cord blood banks as a safer alternative to the less regulated, and much more costly private option. Companies like Viacord charge around $2,000 for the initial procedure as well as a couple hundred dollars for an annual storage fee, a cost which isn’t covered by insurance.
Viacord went public in 2005 after a long series of lawsuits, the adversaries of which Ms. Fisher described as ‘trolls’ to the students in Karp Hall, and was subsequently bought by biotech giant PerkinsElmer. Now valued at $750 million, Ms. Fisher credits Viacord’s success to a long mental and spiritual hiatus she took to Nepal, which she says inspired her to found the company. On Wednesday she encouraged like-minded and aspiring students to get out of their comfort zones and find inspiration through an exotic or unusual vehicle.
Ms. Fisher made sure to stress the importance of learning from one’s inevitable setbacks and failures. She recalled her grandfather’s loss of his silk mills to nylon production nearly overnight, and she’s ingrained that memory as a lesson to never personally guarantee yourself everything, no matter how confident you are in an idea or a process.
“Plan B can be really magical,” she told the crowded room, crediting a mixup in her medical school acceptance as a blessing in disguise that landed her at IBM following her graduation from Ursinus College.
Her role at IBM, where she worked in the defense sector and dealt with countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, jump started her business orientated career and eventually lead her to Harvard Business School.
On being a woman in dominantly male boardrooms and offices, she compared her experience to being “a woman in the men’s restroom,” allowing her position to drive her to demand respect from her co-workers and gain self-confidence.
“There are thought leaders in every industry,” she told the crowd, solidifying the notion of thinking big, yet remaining pragmatic. She stressed due diligence and timing as being key factors in starting something from scratch, noting that her tireless research on the various venture capital firms courting Viacord in its angel investing stage helped out hugely in the long run. But chiefly, she reminded students to be empowered by their work, just as she’s empowered knowing that the company she started has the ability to save lives.
Ms. Fisher is currently a director at The Boston Beer Company, which is the parent company of Sam Adams and was founded by her husband, Jim Koch.