Photo of Thomas J. Fogarty

Thomas J. Fogarty

  • National Medal of Technology and Innovation
  • Medicine

For innovations in minimally invasive medical devices.

Thomas Fogarty on working with young people

As a teen, Thomas Fogarty had no way to know that his fishing hobby and a humble 5 cents an hour job as a hospital scrub technician would change the lives of millions of people.

He took the hospital job while working on his dream of becoming a professional boxer. His job brought him into the operating room and then eventually into medical school. Those two experiences allowed him to witness the extremely invasive and quite often unsuccessful procedure in place at the time to remove blood clots.

After observing how an uninflated balloon would conform to the varying curves of a soda bottle if inflated inside the bottle, Fogarty realized that the same would happen if a balloon were inflated inside an artery. The balloon could be inflated past the clot, he realized, and then used to pull the clot out of the artery. He created a prototype of his device using the tip of a latex glove tied to a hollow tube with a bit of fishing line.

Though the device faced a lot of backlash when he released it as a relatively inexperienced 26-year-old surgeon, Fogarty’s balloon catheter has now become an industry standard. It is used in around 300,000 procedures a year. Since its debut, it is estimated to have saved the lives and limbs of over 20 million patients.

Fifty-five years after his first invention, Fogarty is more dedicated than ever to fostering breakthrough inventions in the medical field. Today he runs the nonprofit Fogarty Institute for Innovation dedicated to helping early-stage startups get new medical devices to the market faster.

When looking for startups to nurture, Fogarty says he looks for a constellation of qualities, including the ability to move past unsuccessful ideas. “Essentially, you need someone that’s totally committed, they’re hard working, they accept failure, and look at it as just a learning curve,” he says. “You’re going to fail, but then you’ve got to go in a different direction.”