By Bettina Lehovec, Special to the NWA Democrat-Gazette
December 27, 2015
Tony Cruz likes a challenge. Whether it’s driving his Porsche GT3 at 175 mph around a private track or taking a new biotech product from startup to drug store shelf, he thrives on the attainment of hard-to-reach goals.
CRUZ INTRODUCES A SMALL PATCH TO REDUCE THE HUGE CHALLENGE OF DIABETIC CARE
The CEO of SFC Fluidics in Fayetteville, Cruz is taking the technology startup in a new direction, developing a disposable patch pump for diabetics. He hopes to have the product on the shelves in 2017, reaching the 16 million potential customers who use insulin in the industrialized world.
The drug-delivery system will be worn as a patch on the outside of the body, testing blood sugar levels and delivering insulin and glucose via a small needle under the skin. The technology is not unique to SFC Fluidics, but the company miniaturized the pump while improving precision and keeping costs down.
The wireless system uses microfluidics, a technology that controls the flow of liquids at extremely low volumes. Prior to hiring Cruz in 2012, the company was working on diagnostics technology for microfluidics lab research. Cruz saw the potential for something bigger. He steered the company toward the manufacture of the disposable patch pump.
“This takes SFC from a successful company selling components and turns it into a potential billion-dollar company,” says Calvin Goforth, CEO of VIC Technology Venture Development in Fayetteville, the parent company that developed the technology.
The need is huge, Cruz says. Diabetes is a stressful, time-consuming disease to manage with multiple glucose readings needed throughout the day, typically with finger-prick tests, and several injections of artificial insulin. The fuss keeps many people from monitoring the disease as well as they should, he says. Automatic insulin-delivery pumps are available, but much larger and more unwieldy than the one made with microfluidics technology, he says.
“If you have something less intrusive, why carry around a big backpack?” Cruz asks.
The company is also developing other medical products such as a traumatic brain injury test for hospitals. A three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health is funding that research. In October, the company received another Institutes of Health grant to develop an implantable drug-delivery pump for small animals to be used in laboratory research.
Cruz’s job is to raise the money needed to develop the products and to market them to consumers worldwide. He is courting strategic partners in the medical devices field as well as private investors and agents. He travels extensively, building relationships with potential partners around the globe.
He brings a wealth of experience to his work with sales, marketing and business development, Goforth said. Cruz’s career has taken him from biotech startup to multinational corporation and back again, several times.
“Tony has vision, he has focus; he has great communication skills. He knows how to talk to people, how to get them on board,” Goforth says. “He understands the medical devices sector. He’s smart — he’s a Stanford MBA. He’s got all the skills and integrity. Everyone trusts him.”
Cruz, whose home base is in Atlanta, spends about five days a month in Northwest Arkansas. He enjoys the downtown area, scenic drives to Branson and Razorback football games.
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
Cruz earned his undergraduate degree at Tufts University in Massachusetts, graduating with honors in 1985. He majored in chemical engineering, a field that continues to inform his work with microfluidics.
He financed his college education through the ROTC program, graduating as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force and served five years at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, working in the acquisitions program office for the B-1 Bomber.
“I really lucked out in making that decision,” Cruz says about his stint in the Air Force. At a time when his college friends were just starting their careers, he was responsible for coordinating defense contracts with both civil and military contractors.
Cruz met his wife, Angelique, at Wright Patterson when she served in Air Force intelligence. The couple have three children — two daughters in college and a son at home.
In 1990, Cruz entered graduate school at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., honing the business skills he would bring to the private sector. The entrepreneurial focus of Stanford’s MBA program encouraged him to dream bigger.
“Stanford’s MBA program is [one] that pushes the envelope,” he says. “They help students believe they can change the world.”
That focus inspired him to ask his own questions, and some of those questions continue to guide his life.
“What am I going to be proud of? What are my kids going to be proud of when they look back at my life?”
Cruz’s first private sector job was with Genpharm International, a biotech startup in Silicon Valley in 1992. The office was so small that he and his colleagues shared desks, using rolling file cabinets for additional working space. The company worked to develop new drugs for cancer and other autoimmune diseases. It’s now part of Bristol-Myers Squibb.
In 1996, Cruz made the move to Becton-Dickinson in Franklin Lakes, N.J., a Fortune 500 company. He headed the Vacutainer Division, marketing blood collection tubes worldwide. In 2000, he moved to Athens, Ga., to work in another biotech startup that’s now part of Alexion Pharmaceuticals. He served in a variety of capacities there, including being in charge of product development, finances and administration.
After six years, Cruz took his experience with financial management to Covidien Surgical Devices, another Fortune 500 company in Norwalk, Conn., where he led global business development and strategic planning.
But his family remained in Atlanta, and the long commute took a toll.
He left the job after two years for Facet Technologies, a small company in the Atlanta area that supplies diabetes products to larger distributors. The new role gave him the perspective on the medical devices market that he brings to his work at SFC Fluidics.
What remained constant, says Angelique Cruz, was the driving force behind his career moves: the desire to challenge himself to learn more.
“If he’s learning something — if he can improve the company or improve himself — he’ll stay,” she says. “If it becomes the same thing month after month, with no change, he’ll start looking” for something else.
Around the time that Cruz got that feeling again, SFC Fluidics was ready to move into a more proactive stage of product development and selected Cruz as one of three final applicants for the CEO role.
Anna Washburn, projects coordinator at SFC Fluidics, was impressed by Cruz at his first interview. She and her colleagues asked what would happen to if the startup sold to a larger company, and Cruz was the only candidate to respond with a plan, suggesting employees be given shares in the company that would benefit them in case of a sale.
He has followed through, a habit that’s become a hallmark of his leadership style, Washburn says, and elicited feedback from the people he works with.
“I always feel heard,” she says. “He listens to what I say. He doesn’t always follow my advice, but he accounts for it in the whole scheme.”
Cruz’s decision to take the technology firm from diagnostics to insulin delivery was met with some resistance, but he listened respectfully to all viewpoints and made the decisions he deemed best for the company.
“He’s not a pushover,” Washburn says. Still, his collaborative management style made a positive impact on company culture. “Tony is fun — always energetic, always has pertinent stories to tell — and very accomplished. You can go to Walgreens and see products he has helped put on the shelf.”
A MODEL FOR SUCCESS
Born in the Philippines in 1962, Cruz immigrated to the U.S. at age 8 and settled in Hartford, Conn, where his father was a civil engineer and his mother worked a variety of jobs.
The fourth of six children and the first boy, Tony was the favored child, says his eldest sister, Grace Alberti.
That favoritism seemed to stem from his extreme intellect. Cruz’s parents had his IQ tested before entering elementary school in the Philippines and his score was the highest ever recorded for his age, Alberti recalled. The local newspaper wrote a story about his success.
Expectations for the six children were lofty. Alberti and her siblings were taught to respect one another, contribute to the community and work hard. They were expected to get A’s in school and were reprimanded if they fell short.
She remembers that Cruz, as a child, was popular with his peers but shy and quiet at home — an assessment that surprises the people who know him now. He was interested in the details of the world around him, like the times he would pick an insect off the ground, inspect it closely and search for it in the encyclopedia once he was back home.
“He was just very curious,” Alberti says. He wasn’t afraid to voice his own opinion, but always did so in respectful ways. “I see it this way” was a favorite phrase, she recalled.
Alvin, the youngest of the six siblings, looked up to his brother as a mentor. He remembers his brother driving him to the tennis courts despite his busy schedule as a high school scholar and athlete.
“He made an effort to be there for me,” Alvin Cruz says. “He was a very good role model, always hard working.”
Alvin Cruz says his brother is focused and driven, and those are the qualities that have helped him succeed. In choosing a college home, Tony Cruz wanted to go to Tufts, but his parents didn’t have the money. Rather than letting it stop him or change his plans, he found a way to make it happen by joining the ROTC.
While in the Air Force, Cruz joined Toastmasters International to hone his public speaking skills even though he has always been friendly and outgoing and draws people to him with his sincerity and warmth, says Angelique Cruz.
The Cruzes are foodies and plan vacations around what they want to eat, Tony Cruz says. A typical date might take the couple driving an hour away to visit a new restaurant.
“I’ll eat anything and everything,” he says. “I just want it to be different and be good.”
Cruz also likes to cook. His idea of a perfect afternoon is grilling a steak, sitting down with his family and talking about the day. As his children grow up, that habit is changing.
When he’s not at work or with his family, Cruz drives his racing Porsche around a private track in Atlanta. Hugging the curves at high speed is scary and exhilarating.
“It gets your mind off everything,” he says. “The one thing on your mind is how to stay on the track.”
Once a competitive sportsman, Cruz played tennis and basketball until his knees gave out. Family says Cruz would analyze any game he lost in an attempt to figure out what he could have done differently.
“Tony doesn’t like to lose,” Alberti says.
Cruz agrees he is competitive, although in an understated way. He doesn’t like to call attention to himself, but “business is all about competition,” he says. “How are you going to do better? How are you going to get out there and leave your mark?
You want to make sure you do what you can and you do your very best.”