By Judy Newman
The Wisconsin State Journal.
Sue Wallace, general manager of Philips Radiation Oncology Systems of Fitchburg, always knew she wanted to be a physician when she was growing up in Racine.
As a chemistry major at UW-Milwaukee, Wallace took the Medical College Admission Test and filled out an application for med school. But she never sent it in.
Walking through a hallway on campus, she saw a poster for a summer program in nuclear chemistry sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy in San Jose, and after spending nearly two months immersed in learning about the prospects for nuclear medicine, she was hooked.
Now, Wallace is in charge of a division of a global corporation, Philips, based in the Netherlands, with about 150 employees in Fitchburg, locations in Cleveland and in Bangalore, India, and annual revenues around $100 million.
“In truth, I’ve been able to impact care of many, many more patients by taking the course I took,” Wallace said.
Recently, Wallace was one of the keynote speakers at BioForward’s annual Bioscience Vision Summit at Monona Terrace. She said members of the local biotech community need to communicate more, both among each other and also to shine the light on the biotech community’s strength here.
A former executive at GE Healthcare and at Cardinal Health and acting CEO at a variety of start-ups, Wallace has headed the Philips unit since September 2009. The single mother of a teenage son and daughter, Wallace commutes to the Madison area from her home in Waukesha.
Q: What does Philips Radiation Oncology Systems produce?
A: Our Pinnacle platform develops, primarily, software solutions for use in creating treatment plans for patients receiving radiation oncology therapy. It was the first radiation planning system to work in 3D when it was developed. Now, we use 4D, including motion over time.
When a patient goes for radiation therapy, there are three steps. First, some kind of image is taken, usually with a CT (computerized tomography, which combines a series of X-ray views), to show where the tumor is and what organs nearby need to be spared the radiation.
Second, a treatment plan is created. That’s when health care providers determine how much radiation they want to deliver, at what intensity, and from what angles while sparing healthy tissues as much as possible.
With 4D technology, if, for example, the plan is to treat a patient’s tumor in the lung, the patient is lying on the table and his or her heart is beating.
At any point in time, the heart is in a different position and the radiotherapist doesn’t want to hit the heart. You can create a treatment plan that factors in that motion over time by measuring the patient’s breathing cycle and then adapting the plan.
The third step is delivering that plan through treatment with a linear accelerator or TomoTherapy type of machine. We don’t do step three; Philips does not design those systems.
Q: What are the origins of Philips Radiation Oncology Systems?
A: It started in 1992 as Geometrics, a spinoff from UW-Madison, founded by Thomas “Rock” Mackie, Paul Reckwerdt, Mark Gehring and Cameron Sanders. (Mackie and Reckwerdt went on to co-found TomoTherapy, which makes radiation therapy machines, and Gehring is a serial entrepreneur whose most recent involvement is with Propeller Health, a company that makes sensors to use with asthma inhalers.) Geometrics was acquired by ADAC Laboratories, of Milpitas, California, in 1996 and then by Philips in 2000.
That’s one of the reasons I love talking about this business in this community. Let’s innovate these ideas here … that can touch patients in every corner of the world.
Q: How many employees are at Philips in Fitchburg compared with other locations?
A: We have about 150 employees in Fitchburg, including computer science and electrical engineers, medical physicists, a marketing team, customer support and tech support. Fitchburg is the headquarters for this division. We also have a fairly large team of engineers in Bangalore and a small contingent in Cleveland.
Over the last four years, there’s been significant growth in the size of our team here in Fitchburg. There’s a lot of pressure today on the cost of treatment but radiation oncology still is a growing market space. Cancer incidents are only going up, so we still need to keep adding capacity. We have doubled the number of people here and grew dramatically in Cleveland and Bangalore. It’s really improving the health of our business.
Q: Where is the company headed?
A: We’ve just introduced something profoundly transformative, as a business and for patient care. Up to now, when a treatment plan is needed, it can take seven to 10 days before it’s approved by medical personnel and is ready to be delivered to the patient.
A lot of people need to check off on it. Our new product, Pinnacle Auto-Planning, creates a very high-quality plan — in many cases, higher than the average person can create. Our goal is to get that planning time down to 15 minutes.
With cancer, this is a big deal. When you’re told you have an aggressive tumor, waiting 10 days — that feels like an eternity. If we can get that down to, “You’re going to start treatment this afternoon,” it’s transformational.
This is done through improved workflows, and it improves the plan quality along the way.
Q: How would you describe your leadership style?
A: I am all about transparency and proactive communication with a really strong emphasis on accountability and empowerment.
Before, we had one major software release every two to three years. Now, we are releasing four to six programs a year. Our last six releases have been on time — to the day. We are taking our commitment seriously, setting realistic plans and holding ourselves accountable.
Q: What do you think of the biotech and medical device sector in the Madison area?
A: In the last year, it’s been fun to start getting more involved. I think the cluster is under-appreciated. When you start looking under the hood, there’s really impressive expertise, patents, start-ups and large companies. We actually are a world center of excellence, but I’m not sure people recognize it.
Why can’t we be the next Silicon Valley? To me, the difference is we are not talking to each other enough. We don’t have enough forums where we can cross-pollinate and share ideas. … I hope to pursue something like TED talks, called MAD talks, to increase energy in the field and take advantage of medical technology expertise. … Let’s just think about something that seems a little crazy, a little out of reach, and then we can start taking small steps in that direction.