The Return of the "Garage Gang"

By Christopher Snowbeck, Twincities Pioneer Press, January 2008

The garage where Medtronic was founded stood at 818 19th Ave. N.E. in Minneapolis. The company is displaying a replica of the garage's facade as part of a celebration of the opening of a divisional headquarters in Mounds View.. (Photo courtesy of Medtronic) In the early years, Medtronic employees would treat themselves to instant coffee warmed on a hotplate.

There was no timeclock to punch. And co-founder Earl Bakken ate his lunch alongside employees at an assembly table.

Medtronic's world headquarters building at the time was just as simple - a garage in northeast Minneapolis.

Those garage days won't be forgotten when the $12 billion company dedicates its newest headquarters building - a massive facility in Mounds View housing its heart rhythm management business.

During the event, Medtronic will display a life-size replica of the façade on the old garage where Bakken helped create the company in 1949.

With 1.2 million square feet of space, the new building could house 2,000 old garages.

Members of the so-called "garage gang" - the original employees of Medtronic - gathered in December for a commemorative luncheon in the new facility. If they were pretty good at building and repairing medical equipment back in the day, the garage gang's vision of Medtronic's future was somewhat less precise.

"One day at lunch, Earl said, 'Well, we're selling about five pacemakers a month. I think we've pretty much saturated the market,' " said John Bravis, Medtronic's first full-time employee, recalling a conversation in 1958. "And all-knowing me, I said: 'I think you're right, Earl,' " said Bravis, 81, of Columbia Heights.

In an interview, Bakken said he didn't recall that particular conversation. But the 83-year-old co-founder agreed that no one knew that the pacemaker would grow to what it is today - a technology that's used in about 900,000 patients worldwide every year. About 6 million Medtronic pacemakers have been implanted between 1962 and 2006, and pacemaker sales generated about $1.9 billion in revenue for Medtronic in fiscal 2007 alone.

"We didn't know it was a business," Bakken said. Medtronic was founded as a shop for repairing and servicing electronic equipment used in hospitals. Bakken got the idea for the business because his wife was a medical technician at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, and her colleagues kept asking him to fix hospital equipment. At the time, there were no shops with expertise in doing these repairs. So, Bakken, who had studied electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota, approached his brother-in-law, Palmer Hermundslie, with the idea of starting a company. They first talked it over during a family birthday party - Bakken's and Hermundslie's wives were sisters. Medtronic was founded in a garage at 818 19th Ave. N.E. behind the Hermundslie's family home. As the business grew, the founders expanded the original garage building. And Bakken got to know doctors at the University of Minnesota and elsewhere who would ask him to develop special devices for use with patients. The battery-powered external pacemaker - the device that ultimately put Medtronic on the map - was one such project.

Pacemakers today are battery-powered devices that are about the size of two silver dollar coins stacked together. They are surgically implanted in the body, and connected to the heart by lead wires that convey electrical energy from pulse generators. As was true 50 years ago, pacemakers work by providing electrical stimulus to maintain a steady heart rate in patients whose hearts otherwise would beat too slowly or erratically. But back in the 1950s, pacemakers were powered by electricity and featured pulse generators that were outside the body. Lead wires stretched from these external devices, and were inserted through the chest. Most importantly, pacemakers were meant to treat a heart rhythm disturbance called "heart block" only when the condition was brought on by surgery, and therefore short in duration. In most cases, the patients who used the devices were children.

In 1957, Dr. Walt Lillehei of the University of Minnesota approached Bakken about creating a pacemaker that ran on battery power - rather than electricity - after a power outage on Halloween proved fatal for a pediatric patient who was dependent on pacing. Bakken developed the first wearable battery-powered external pacemaker that year, and the device was first used in patients in 1958.

Even so, the Medtronic pacemaker seemed to have a limited horizon as a product. "All we knew about pacing was that it worked short-term," Bakken said.. That began to change when a St. Paul physician named Dr. Sam Hunter successfully connected in 1959 an external pacemaker to a 72-year-old man who was a Bethesda Hospital patient and suffered heart block as a result of disease. The pacemaker sustained the patient for more than seven years, and in the process spurred interest in creating pacemakers that could be implanted. Hunter's contribution was key because it demonstrated that pacemakers had a use in a much larger group of patients.

"Dr. Sam Hunter - he ought to be given a lot of credit," Bakken said. "He started this long-term pacing." Hunter had been collaborating with a biomedical engineer at Medtronic named Norman Roth to develop what came to be known as the Hunter-Roth electrode - the bipolar connection point between the lead wire and the heart itself. Whereas lead wires used in pacemakers for children were designed for easy removal, patients with long-term pacing needs also needed a wire that stayed put in the heart, said Hunter, 86, who now lives in Mendota Heights. Meanwhile, two researchers in Buffalo, N.Y., named Wilson Greatbatch and William Chardack were developing and ultimately patented a pacemaker that could be implanted in patients. Medtronic officials and the Buffalo researchers were impressed with one another's technology, Bakken said, and decided to work together. On Oct. 24, 1960, Medtronic bought the exclusive rights to produce and market Chardack-Greatbatch pacemaker. Production began in November, and Medtronic had sold 50 units at $375 each by the end of 1960. Lou Leisch, 78, of Lindstrom, was selected to assemble the first of these devices. "That was our backbone," recalled Leisch, who began working in the garage in April 1959. "It turned out to be the center of our success."

At that time, Medtronic was run "pretty much as a family," said Leisch, who stayed on with the company for more than 30 years. Workers would come in and find that Bakken had left on their desks a schematic drawn on a scratch piece of paper, with a little description of what the device was to do. "It was cold in winter time, and it was pretty hot in the summer," Leisch said of days in the garage. Bakken jokes that, in the early days, the garage's only bathroom facility was a coffee can for male employees. Women used a restroom in the Hermundslie house. But the garage had a bathroom by the time Earl Hatten joined Medtronic in January 1959. Each day at 11:30 a.m., Hatten would go to the hotplate in the furnace room of the garage - there was no kitchen - and put water on for instant coffee. "We'd get a nickel from everyone and that was our coffee fund," said Hatten, now 78, of Fridley. The practice continued even after Medtronic left the garage in April 1961, he said, until "one day our treasurer finally said, 'We can afford to buy the coffee because it's taking more time to collect the nickels.' "

Hatten was a draftsman, and Bakken and the rest of the garage gang would gather around an assembly table for brown bag lunches. For 15 minutes they'd listen to Paul Harvey on the radio, and for another 15 minutes they'd talk.

Dale Blosberg, 68, of Crosslake started working for Medtronic in fall 1958, where he initially did assembly work and electrical repairs. Blosberg got to know Bakken because they worked together installing a sound system at First Lutheran Church in Columbia Heights. Medtronic now might have a market capitalization of some $60 billion, but back in the garage the finances were so tight that "I even had to ask if it was all right to go out and buy a hacksaw blade," said Blosberg. Needless to say, perhaps, there wasn't much money for aesthetics. "It looked like a rat-ridden garage - that's not very nice to say, but it's true," said Kathleen Roth, 79, of Shoreview, who is Norman Roth's widow. "But you know, look what got started there." The contrast between then and now also strikes John Bravis, who became Medtronic's first full-time employee in 1952. Sections of the garage were assembled out of old boxcar parts, he said. Still Bravis was excited to work for the company. As a kid, he was friends with Bakken's cousin and heard the most amazing stories about the Medtronic co-founder - how he'd built a mechanical man, a Taser-like device and other electrical wonders.The Taser was for fending off bullies, Bakken said. He also developed a kissing meter, which purported to gauge whether a kiss between a boy and a girl was more than just a kiss.

"It worked as a good way to keep me popular," Bakken said. This week, Bakken won't be on hand for the commemoration of the division headquarters in Mounds View - he's back at his home in Hawaii after attending the company's events in the Twin Cities last month. The building will house the company's cardiac disease rhythm management unit, which is comprised primarily of pacemakers and implantable cardiac defibrillators - a newer, bigger-selling line of products that can shock a failing heart back into rhythm. At the conclusion of Friday's event, it's not clear exactly what will happen to the replica of the garage facade. Still, just the creation of the 10-foot-tall, 17-foot-wide replica shows the importance Medtronic places on its roots, Bakken said. "It's really a part of the story," he said. "We didn't start out as a big successful company. We want people to know that we started out simply."