How does Steve Charles relax?
“If I’m spotted with a fishing rod or a golf club,” he says, “call the funeral home.”
It’s not that he doesn’t unwind, it’s more that he prefers to rewind. Charles doesn’t take a break from work, he doubles down on it.
Here’s how the world’s leading vitreoretinal surgeon describes his week: “I see cases Monday and Wednesday, and I operate Tuesday and Thursday. I’ve done more retina surgery than anybody in the world, 30,000 cases, hardcore clinical work so I know what the problems are. Thursday night I’m on an airplane — I’ve been flying jets since 1982 — and I’m either teaching or doing engineering every single Friday, Saturday. If I’m not, I will get myself a reading assignment. I’ve got three books in the last week, and I’ve read half of two of them. One is on light scattering, one is on polarization, and another one is on birefringence, and I will complete those because it’s something I need for a project.”
Yes, but what about, you know, fun?
“I’ve never personally seen the Grizzlies or the Tigers play, I’ve never been inside the FedExForum. Or the Orpheum except one time 25 years ago. I’ve never been to AutoZone Park. I’m delighted Memphis has all those things, but it’s not for me. I don’t play golf, I don’t fish, I don’t take vacations, I’ve not seen a movie in 30 years. I want to do my job. But it kind of irritates me when people say I’m a workaholic, or if they say I’m an overachiever, or I need balance in my life. I do have balance. I have engineering, surgery, teaching, and most importantly, I’m a daddy.”
Work is his yin and his yang.
“I don’t need some other relaxation,” Charles says. “I do fly a jet, and people say, ‘Oh, so that’s your hobby!’ No it’s not. I’m an airline transport pilot. I’ve got five jet type ratings. It’s serious, highly focused, like in the operating room.”
There are clues in his childhood as to how he turned out this way. One grandfather was a surgeon, the other a mechanical engineer. “I always wanted to be a design engineer,” he says. “But when I went to engineering school, I was frustrated with trying to find a place to do engineering that helps society, that did something that I thought was meaningful and challenging.” Meanwhile, his father, an artist and college professor, introduced him to some people worth knowing. “I had dinner with Jacques Cousteau one on one. Buckminster Fuller, I talked to him. I’ve met Frank Lloyd Wright, I’ve met Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Frost came to our house. So, we didn’t have any money, but we were always around bright people that worked hard, and did good things.”
It’s the sort of experience that would inform Charles the entrepreneur. “Philosophically, I’d rather have an hour in front of the brightest optics guy at the University of Arizona than to hire some third-tier person full-time,” he says. “For example, I’m friends literally with the top robotics guys in the world. Joe Engelberger, the father of robotics, and Takeo Kanade at Carnegie Mellon.”
Charles says he had a distaste for business thanks to an uncle he describes as “brash,” and yet he’s managed to do five startups, and achieved $7 billion in sales for Alcon Laboratories and machines he’s designed. He has more than 100 patents issued or pending.
“In every instance the startups I did were to bring an idea along to a level where it finally got over the risk threshold,” he says. “The goal wasn’t for me to make money, it was to get a product that we needed.”
“I pride myself on spending a ton of time in engineering,” he says. “So that I’m good at. I taught myself optical design. I’ve got about 20 patent applications now in the photonics base, which I did not learn in engineering school. So, ongoing education in engineering has been my core competency really.”
Inside Memphis Business: What mistakes have you made?
Steve Charles: My failings have always been having insufficient capital to grow the company the rate it should have been growing. The business development and licensing part has been challenging. What I’ve done right is identify the right types of people over and over again because that’s where I’m comfortable.
IMB: What advice would you give to a budding entrepreneur?
SC: People say, “I want to be an innovator like you.” And I say, “Well, what technical competency do you have?” And they say, “What do you mean? I want to start a company. Do you think I should get an MBA?” I say, “To add up the score of the non-product that you haven’t thought of yet? Why don’t you develop the technical competency in something that’s likely to help, whether it’s biotech or it’s med tech.”
IMB: Does anything upset you?
SC: I never get angry, so I don’t believe in anger, but I’m focused, and that’s the way I am in the cockpit. I prefer that feeling of precision and focus than chilling out with a fishing rod or a golf club.
IMB: How do you feel about being in the Society of Entrepreneurs?
SC: What got me so excited was looking at the SOE book (There’s
Something in the Water) and seeing these people. I was just stunned to see what these people have accomplished. To be in an organization where now I get to talk to some people like that who have really done some incredible things, clearly it’ll be a learning experience for me.