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Pivoting From Pharma To Medical Devices With Kris Krustangel

Posted on April 28, 2021

MSP 46 | Medical Devices


It is a known fact that medical devices tend to reward high performers well. However, if you don’t have a passion for the profession, then you won’t last in the industry. Kris Krustangel, the Vice President of Business Development for Saluda Medical, greatly believes in this. Having started in pharma and then took on a fifteen-year career in medical devices, he served many roles from a clinical specialist to a frontline manager and everything in between. In this episode, he joins Samuel Gbadebo to share his journey. He imparts great lessons and insights from his sales experience for those who are in pharma and want to make that pivot to medical devices. He then tells us about his passion for helping and serving other people, showing us how true leaders work and how they inspire.

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Pivoting From Pharma To Medical Devices With Kris Krustangel

We took a break from an episode and this is the reason why. Our core business is to help people who want to enter the industry in healthcare sales. Anything revolving around healthcare sales from customer service to being an actual sales rep. Our core focus is to help people get into the industry and work with sales professionals and sales teams for that optimal performance, whether it’s an individual sales professional who wants to get to the next level or have higher performance for the year, or it’s a team of sales professionals who are trying to do something to get access to more customers and focus on development within their team as far as how they’re analyzing the business and executing. Everything is involved with that core focus, helping professionals get to where they want to go and helping sales professionals and sales teams experience the results they want to experience.

We needed to focus on that because we are experiencing growth in our programs. Again, that’s our core focus. We took a break and we did not have an episode aired. However, we are back and we are ready to continue. We’re going to have an amazing guest in this episode and the weeks to follow. In this episode, we have with us Kris Krustangel. He is the Vice President of Business Development at Saluda Medical. As always, his story is another impressive story and what he has done in his career to get where he is now. His outlook is unique and he is going to talk about that in this episode. There’s something for everyone. For those who want to get into the industry, you want to know this. For those who are in the industry and want to develop further, you want to know this. For those who are leading the way, you definitely want to know this. As always, thank you for reading the blog. I hope you enjoy this episode.

We have a guest with a wide range in healthcare sales. As I said earlier, this is Kris Krustangel. He started in pharma and then took on a fifteen-year career in medical devices. He served many roles from a clinical specialist to a frontline manager and everything in between. He is the Vice President of Business Development for Saluda Medical. Again, I hope you enjoy this conversation with Kris. We’re going to jump right into it. This is part one of two. Let’s get into it.

One thing that I want the audience to understand is why you’re in this space. We’re going to get into some of your history and everything that you’ve been through to get to where you are now in your role. What connects you to neuromodulation?

MSP 46 | Medical Devices

Medical Devices: There is value now in hiring a pharmaceutical rep who already works with your providers, knowing that they have those relationships.


I will back into the answer because I know where you’re going with this. I’ll tell you that like a lot of things, sometimes it’s just the people that you know, the networking and whatnot. That brought me into neuromodulation. Fast forward over the fifteen years I’ve been here, my mother was implanted with a spinal cord stimulator. It has changed her life and changed our lives. I’ve had at least a couple of family members who have been negatively impacted by the opioid epidemic. Over these fifteen years, it has become very personal for me. Not the very first day I started but this space and what the wonderful providers, these interventional pain physicians do on a daily basis for the patient community.

Can you tell us about what happens in your type of space when it comes to medical devices?

We work primarily with interventional pain physicians with ortho spine and neuro spine. You’ve had some past guests on those who are interventional pain physicians. If you haven’t read that, go back and read that two-series set. That’s a good one. There are 50 million patients in chronic pain in the United States. About half of them are seeing a physician, but almost all of those are not seeing a pain physician. There are only about four million who are seeing pain physicians. That’s where we are. We’re in that space with the pain provider. A patient of ours would usually take 5, 6, 7, 8 years before they got to an interventional pain physician. The pain physician will diagnose and treat. Usually, it’s conservative therapy, medical management, physical therapy, and injections.

Over a course of time, maybe it’s a couple of months or a couple of years, they eventually introduce spinal cord stimulation. That’s the section of neuromodulation I’m in. It’s a two-phase procedure. There is a trial. It’s usually seven days. It could be less or it could be more, where the patient gets to test drive of how it helps their chronic pain, usually the back and the legs, but it could be other places. If it goes well, then we come back and the physician implants a permanent device like a pacemaker. The patient lives with this therapy as a way to help deliver therapy toward their chronic pain.

We want to know how do you get here. You have pharmaceutical sales experience, so that’s even more curious. Let’s take it back. Tell us about your college experience. What were you thinking about doing and then what happened next?

You can increase the probability of luck by being prepared and working hard. Share on X

I’ve always been passionate about serving other people. I’m not exactly sure where that came from, but I’ve always liked the idea of helping other people to do better and get better. I do remember when I was in college, I went to the University of Washington in Seattle. I was in business school and it was like, “Where do you want to be? Econ or entrepreneurship?” I got into a sales program. I was like, “This seems fun. Let’s do this.” I had a wonderful professor who was an ex-Xerox guy and talked about this every day, getting to solve people’s problems and how fun that was. I latched onto the industries. I thought it had the biggest longevity.

Fast forward to healthcare, which is 20% of our GDP. It’s a great space. I wasn’t as educated as I am now, but this is a phenomenal space because we do what we do and who benefits but a patient. They have a better life or a better outcome depending on what you’re selling saving their lives. I was naive on the front end. I just liked the idea of solving problems, but now fast forward, solving problems in healthcare on a daily basis is a phenomenal place.

Where did you get your first role? You started with Eli Lilly, right?

Yes, I started with Eli Lilly in diabetes care out in Seattle. It was my first run. We sold insulin and a metformin-type product. I got a chance to work with endocrinologists and internal meds. In medicine, I felt it out. It was the first time I had walked into physician’s offices and got a sense of how they operate. What I mean by operate is how they treat their patients and run their practices.

You were in the sales program in college and then you said, “I want to take this into pharma.” Did somebody approach you or did you see something?

For people reading, part of it is luck. That’s the reality. You can increase the probability of luck by being prepared and working hard. Don’t get me wrong. I knew I wanted to be in healthcare. I applied graciously to a lot of pharmaceutical medical devices, pretty much anything I could get my hands on. I tried to get as many interviews and as quickly as I could. Eli Lilly decided I was worthy enough to be given an opportunity.

Tell us about that. You went to Eli Lilly. You were experiencing the pharma sales experience and then did you take it to where?

I had a good run for about a year and a half. It was not as invasive as I wanted. I had a different pharmaceutical experience for me. This was back in early 2000, 2002. I wasn’t as involved. I didn’t feel like I could make the impact that I wanted. I stepped into a dermatology specialty role. I got a lot more geography. I was like, “This will solve the problem.” It was fun. Again, we had a good year and a half run and then this opportunity that I have then came up. I was like, “I’ve always wanted to break into medical devices. That’s where I’ve always wanted to be.” That started in July 2005.

For those readers who are in pharma and want to get into medical devices, what’s the best piece of advice you can give them?

You have to be clear on your intention because I usually see 1 of 2 paths taken in pharmaceuticals. I see the pathway of, “I’m staying in pharmaceuticals because I’m good and I’m comfortable with it.” I mean that respectfully because you’re good and comfortable with it, but then I see people who get into it and realize it’s not a reflection of what they want to get out of the role and they make that pivot. They have a story with that pivot similar to mine, which is, “I got in and it wasn’t the type of role that I wanted.”

My advice is, if you wanted to get into medical devices, you’re in pharmaceuticals, and you haven’t been there for 10 or 20 years, it’s a great time. Find the medical device reps who call in the same office as you call in. Try to build some relationships and talk to them. There is value to me now in hiring a pharmaceutical rep who already works with my providers, knowing that they have those relationships. The pathway is there. The differentiator for me if I’m ever interviewing them is the clarity of why they’re making the decision like, “I want to move from pharmaceutical into medical devices because of this.” It has to make sense to me.

What are the things that you’ve heard that don’t make sense to you?

MSP 46 | Medical Devices

Medical Devices: Be clear with your leadership, with what you want, and how you would get there.


If people are just coming for more money.

Have you been with all that?

Yes, absolutely. There are different opportunities to do a lot of different things in different roles. Medical devices tend to reward their high performers well. I get it why people would want to move into that. If that’s your primary objective, sometimes, I hold a pause to that because I need to understand more about that because it won’t be forever and it will be hard. That’s usually one that I pause on and push back a little bit with.

Going from pharma to medical devices, medical devices were new to you, but you wanted it. I’m sure you applied it yourself. I can see that you got into leadership pretty quickly. What prompted that? Is that a natural progression of where you took things or did you have your eye on leadership when you started?

I’ve always found myself in those positions. It goes back to this idea of helping and serving other people, servant-based leadership. Sometimes, I ask people like, “What do you want to be in five years?” I couldn’t even answer that for you. What I could tell you is that I will always say yes to opportunities where I get to expand my value and help more people. That’s generally who I am. When I started, it was a startup. It was Advanced Bionics. It wasn’t even Boston Scientific. My progression from clinical specialist to territory management and territory manager to leadership happened probably faster than normal. Part of that was the speed of the growth. I always put my hand up. Every department in the organization, I was trying to help to learn and help them. Naturally, when there was a leadership opportunity came up, they saw me as a more well-rounded candidate and allowed me to take that role.

For those who are wanting to take those same kinds of steps outside of putting your hand up for every opportunity, what are 2 or 3 things that you would definitely say they need to be thinking about?

There are two things that I think about. One is that you have clarity of expectations with your leadership, that they know that you want this. I have some people who are interested only when it’s convenient or maybe they’re burnt out in their current role and now they want to be in it. Again, I’m always a little suspect of the motives behind that. I’m looking for someone who comes in and says, “I’m going to try to do this role for a couple of years and then I want to be a regional business director.” Setting that expectation with me or their regional business director is helpful because then we’re trying to align our coaching and resources to get them in the best spot, so they’re ready. That’s one thing is to be clear with your leadership, with what you want, and how you would get there.

The second thing is that you have to own it yourself. Nobody is just going to be like, “It’s your time, number 226. You’re an RBD.” You have to own it. You’re driving the car, which means that on the nights and weekends, you’re reading leadership books, listening to shows like this, taking Coursera.org or some of these online training or maybe they’re going into your program, Samuel. I know you have an executive coaching program you mentioned. They’re investing in themselves outside of the role. If I see someone who set clear expectations with me and then I saw them grinding outside the role to make themselves better, they’re in a pretty darn good spot when it comes to making a decision about who wants to be a leader in our organization.

One thing I like about your experience is your two tiers of leadership. You went to Regional Business Director and then to Area Vice President. Talk to us about how leadership looks different. I’m sure that some of the principles remain the same. What are the differences between those two styles of leadership?

A regional business director, district sales manager, or whatever the role is called is one of the most difficult roles that exist in medical devices because you are in the thick of everything. The corporation is coming down on you and then you have your team coming up at you. You’re pushing up on both these pressures and trying to come up with solutions that can happen fast. You’re trying to protect your team, give them resources, and remove things that get in their way. The line of sight is a little shorter. It’s maybe a quarter or two ahead. They’re still going to be ahead of their teams in trying to predict and get what they need.

The biggest differentiator from that to my role is I need to be looking at a year and a half in advance, where I’m trying to predict some industry trends and invest in resources before we need them. I’m also trying to dive deep into coaching up people all throughout my team, so they’re ready if there needs to be succession. Both are very hard. Going back to when I was in RBD, it was tough. It was like that first transition from you. You’re an individual contributor. It’s your territory. You’re grinding. Everything is on your shoulders.

Medical devices tend to reward their high performers well. Share on X

All of a sudden, you have all this responsibility but no technical control. You’re going to get paid and they’re going to put you on a sheet that says, “You’re number 6 or 60 in the country.” You take that personally. That’s a hard headspace to be in. Anybody who takes on that role is a remarkable individual. In order to move to that next role, you got to get all that and then you got to be looking out down the road more, predicting the resources, and preparing for obstacles that might get in the way of the team’s success.

You’ve managed two sets within leadership. In fifteen years, you’ve seen all kinds of reps that anyone can imagine seeing. Give us some of the top three qualities that make an exceptional rep. We’ll discuss some of the pitfalls that can go the opposite direction.

First off, and I mean this respectfully to all industries, to be a top rep in neuromodulation, that takes a lot. For us, we deal with the patient, physician, and business. There’s probably more like 20, but the one that comes to my mind these days is a focus on empathy. Being an empathetic individual who can understand the needs and the challenges of the customer. It’s not about their detail piece for the two best features of their product. It’s about like, “What problems are the customer-facing, both personally and professionally for that matter? How can I provide value in that conversation or my activities and resources with them?” People who get that quickly seem to have a lot of success. The second thing, especially with territory managers, is that they’re able to have crucial conversations or they manage conflict well. They can drive it in a way that’s appropriate. It’s not inflammatory and dramatic, but they can have tough conversations with customers to get them to see things they may have not seen without that conversation.

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About Kris Krustangel

MSP 46 | Medical DevicesProven Medical Device Leader.

Kris is focused on innovating strategies for success while increasing the capacity of his team’s performance along the way. Passion, commitment, and results have been the consistent theme of his career.

He started in Pharma and then quickly took on a +15 year career in Medical Devices. He has served in many roles from clinical specialist to a front-line manager and everything in between. Currently, he is the Vice President of Business Development for Saluda Medical.


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