An Eye for Healthcare

Venture capitalist and Purdue alumnus William Link helps start-ups launch revolutionary biomedical products.

As he considered his career possibilities, William Link (BSME ’70, MSME ’71, PhD ’73) began by crossing these off his list: farming, aerospace, and, eventually, academics.

What most interests him is applying engineering to healthcare problems. That he does, helping launch breakthrough products in ophthalmology, including those used in laser–assisted in situ keratomileusis (LASIK) vision correction. After leading two start–ups to success, today he’s a passionate venture capitalist at two groups with a combined $1.8 billion in committed capital.

While the work ethic he developed as a teen working on his family’s farm is something he retains, the Markle, Indiana, native decided early on, “I didn’t want to be in a profession where the weather could cancel my good work. I was pretty good in math and science, so I decided on engineering.”

That led him to Purdue, a mechanical engineering bachelor’s, a pilot’s license, and a master’s in aerospace applications. At that point, he decided, “I need to have a clear understanding of how my work will be applied and how it will help people.” He dropped aeronautics for the more focused healthcare vision for his PhD—“before biomed was a field”—and added veterinary classes to his studies.

Doctorate in hand, he headed to the Indiana University School of Medicine, housed in Indianapolis’s Wishard Hospital, where he was an assistant professor in the surgery department from 1973 to 1976.

“That reinforced my love and dedication to healthcare and my belief that there is a role for an engineer on a medical team,” says the winner of the 2006 Engineering of the Future Award from the University of California at Irvine. He’s also been honored by Purdue—as a Distinguished Engineering Alumnus in 1985 and an Outstanding Mechanical Engineer in 1991.

At Wishard, he worked with industry in product development and testing. “That got me fired up to transition out of academia into the private sector,” he recalls. He landed at American Hospital Supply Corporation in California. “It was a big step, because I viewed myself as an academician. Initially, I was a little embarrassed that I had left.”

The first day, his boss asked in a staff meeting if anyone knew anything about intraocular lenses. “It was dead quiet,” Link, then 30, remembers. “A few moments later, I said, ‘I don’t really know about those lenses, but I know an ophthalmologist.’”

“Call him,” his boss said. Link was soon watching surgeries, learning from physicians, and launching a new division, American Medical Optics. It sold to Allergan in 1986 for $165 million.

Now 40, Link was ready for the next venture. With his wife, Marsha, he founded Chiron Vision, a subsidiary of Chiron Corporation, in the bonus room above their garage. Over the next decade the company grew to 1,200 employees as it introduced cataract, refractive, and retinal surgery products, including those used in LASIK procedures. By 1997, revenues topped $200 million annually, and he sold to Bausch & Lomb for $310 million.

Link next turned to venture capital full time. In 1999, he co–founded California’s Versant Ventures, whose early–stage, healthcare company investments now top $1 billion. Earlier, he’d become active in Brentwood Venture Capital in California, an interest he continues today.

“I view myself as the coach,” he says of Versant. “I can help a team anticipate and plan for what’s ahead. When I sign on to a project, I am committed, and we work really hard together. It’s a treat and privilege to sponsor projects that, when we’re lucky and things go well, provide patient benefits and [enable] investors [to] do well, too.”

One of those projects is IntraLase, whose products include improved, advanced lasers for LASIK.

While Link left farming behind, lessons from that time resonate today.

“My dad quietly modeled a work ethic that became part of my fabric,” he says. “And my mom was the first person to treat me as an adult. Facing a tough decision in high school, I remember distinctly Mom saying, ‘Bill, I trust you; you’ll make the right decision.’ That was pretty powerful.”

By seventh grade, he’d met his lifelong partner, Marsha. She was valedictorian of their 1964 high school class; Link, salutatorian. They married during college and raised two children, Bradley and Elizabeth.

Link’s other career possibilities—aeronautics, teaching, and research—continue to factor in his life, too. He still takes to the skies, today piloting his own jet. His product innovations and entrepreneurial coaching mirror the academic world. And he returns to Purdue a couple of times a year as an executive faculty member in the Biomedship Program, which promotes biomedical innovations.

With medical product breakthroughs that fulfilled his dream of helping others, Link knows he made the right career choice. Through it all, he says, he was guided by a simple philosophy: “Take care of yourself and your family, and a lot of other things will be okay.”