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Pickens resident, inventor, honored with top Georgia Bio award

Dr. Richard Hillstead recognized for impact in medical industry

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Dr. Richard Hillstead, who is now semi-retired from the medical device industry, at the Georgia Bio Helix Awards in Atlanta where he received the Georgia Bio Industry Growth Award. 

He moved to Jasper from Suwanee, Ga. two years ago with his wife. He has two daughters. In his free time, Hillstead enjoys restoring electric guitars, hunting, and fishing.  

 

Dr. Richard Hillstead Ph.D, FAHA said that while he is humbled to be one of two recipients of the prestigious 2019 Georgia Bio Industry Growth Award, he isn’t sure he belongs with other heavy hitters who have received the life science trade association’s highest honor.

       But a look at Hillstead’s achievements over the course of his long and impressive career in the medical device industry shows that the entrepreneur, investor and inventor is exactly where he should be - rubbing elbows with people who have made a big impact in the field. 

 

 

Top of his class

 

Among his many accomplishments, Hillstead is named on over 80 patents both in the US and internationally, and has been involved in the design and development of medical devices for over 30 years. He has given expert-witness testimony on medical devices around the world, including at the High Court of Justice in the UK, the EPO Tribunal, and federal courts. 

Hillstead is most recently CEO of Richard A. Hillstead Inc., a medical device development and entrepreneurship consulting firm  near Atlanta,  and sits on several boards including the Emory University New Technology Advisory Board. He is also a Fellow in the American Heart Association on the Council of Clinical Cardiology.  

“Our life sciences community employs more than 32,000 Georgians,” said Bob McNally, Chair of the Georgia Bio Awards Committee. “It is important to recognize the individuals and organizations supporting healthcare innovations and leadership here in Georgia.” 

Georgia Bio identified Hillstead as someone who “champions industry workforce development.”

Hillstead spoke with the Progress after he was recognized at the 2019 Golden Helix Awards Gala in Atlanta on Friday, Feb. 8. He talked about his career as an inventor, semi-retirement, and other volunteer projects he has on the horizon. 

 

The early years of invention

 

Hillstead’s interest in the medical device industry was sparked by his father who had emphysema, and whose movement was restricted because of his medical equipment. Born out of an immediate need he saw of his dad’s, Hillstead augmented the equipment by duplicating and adding hoses that would give him more mobility. 

“That’s when I thought, maybe I can contribute something in this field,” he said.   

Hillstead’s post-secondary education began in Florida in the machine shop and transitioned into what would become his first associate’s degree in mechanical engineering from Miami Dade College. After what he says was several years “learning on the job” as an engineer, he went on to earn  a masters and Ph.D in business administration. 

Hillstead started his career in a nursing home and in 1987 found himself with Cordis Company where he where he was responsible for the design and development of numerous vascular intervention devices, such as stints and balloons. 

By 1987 Hillstead had applied for his first medical-device patents. The first he received was a “catheter sheath introducer,” which keeps blood from leaving the body during surgery. It has sold millions of units since it was invented. 

“I was pretty proud of that,” he said, “and it helped cement the fact that I really liked doing this.” 

 

Designing for need

 

Hillstead creates his designs based on what he calls “unmet clinical needs.” To do this, he interviews physicians to find out where he should focus his energies during the design process. 

“That’s what drives me to invent,” he said, noting he has an especially big heart for the needs of pediatric patients. 

After dozens and dozens of successful medical inventions, Hillstead said he still gets excited when he has an “aha” moment while he’s designing – and gets even more of a rush when he sees his designs work. He recalled the first time one of his coronary stint devices was successfully used in a patient. 

“It’s different when you are testing things on pigs,” he said, “but when you are able to successfully do this on a person, it’s a great feeling.” 

Of the 80-plus patents he has been granted, Hillstead said there were only two times he was awarded legal protection for a device on his first request. Almost all patents are initially rejected, he said, which results in the need for a patent lawyer to distinguish the design as original. 

The patent process typically takes at least two years, he said. 

Over the last three decades, Hillstead said designing medical devices has become a much different animal that it was when he began. Technology has made the process much more efficient.

“There’s a lot more computer modeling now,” he said. “Now, you can create prototypes with 3-D printers. There’s a lot we had to learn the hard way when I first started.”

The patent process has also recently changed with the America Invents Act of 2013. In general, the Act changes the U.S. patent system from a "first to invent" to a "first inventor to file" system, which Hillstead said gets the U.S. in line with the rest of the world’s policies. 

 

Volunteerism, looking ahead

 

While he’s technically “semi-retired,” Hillstead said he isn’t the type to slow down. Serving as an expert witness keeps him on the ball intellectually, as does offering consulting services that helps align universities’ and small companies’ design and development strategies with future needs in the industry. 

In addition to the volunteer work he does for the numerous boards his sits on, Hillstead has other interests as well.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever really retire,” he said. “I guess I need a purpose, and now I want to give back.” 

Before moving to Pickens, he served as vice president of the Gwinnett Citizens Fire Academy, and served as assistant emergency coordinator for public health and was a volunteer Gwinnett Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES).

Since his move to Pickens, Hillstead is the incoming assistant emergency coordinator for Pickens County Amateur Radio Emergency Services. He would like to establish and maintain radio equipment in hospitals and key locations here, and work with personnel to operate the stations in times of emergency, as he did in Gwinnett.

Another key goal of his is to implement a program in Pickens, again similar to the one he did in Gwinnett, securing and donating defibrillators in areas of need, free of charge.  

“I guess I’ve always have some sense of volunteerism,” he said. “It seems like the right thing to do.” 

Learn more about Georgia Bio and other recipients of their 2019 awards at www.GeorgiaBio.org.