Deborah Kilpatrick
by Deborah Kilpatrick, CardioDx

Over the last decade, strolling through the industry’s largest conferences, CardioDx Chief Commercial Officer Deborah Kilpatrick started seeing more women among the lanyard-clad attendees, representing both the science and business sides of the medical device and diagnostics worlds. But looking up from the conference floor, onto the stage and behind the podium, things were considerably less egalitarian.

“We really were beginning to notice that despite more and more of us attending these meetings, we weren’t seeing women leaders being asked to speak,” Kilpatrick said. “So rather than just complaining about that or wondering why it was the case, we decided to challenge the null hypothesis, I suppose.”

Thus came MedtechWOMEN–an organization Kilpatrick co-founded in 2010 with Amy Belt Raimundo, her then-colleague at Guidant’s vascular division–and the idea for MedtechVISION, an annual conference that launched in 2011 to address the biggest issues in the industry while putting women leaders front and center in the discussion.

After three straight sold-out events, MedtechVISION is a success by any measure, and the constantly growing MedtechWOMEN includes decision-makers from industry giants like Abbott Laboratories ($ABT) and Edwards Lifesciences ($EW) alongside academic leaders and startup executives.

And Kilpatrick, across her 20-plus-year career, has spent time in each of those roles, most recently in the C-suite of one of the most talked-about companies in diagnostics. Since 2006, she has helmed the commercial arm of FierceMedicalDevices Fierce 15 luminary CardioDx, a venture-backed outfit whose Corus CAD test has wooed physicians and payers alike with its ability to make coronary artery disease diagnoses more cost-effective.

In August 2012, CardioDx hit two major milestones, picking up Medicare reimbursement for the blood-based gene test and closing a $58 million funding round, and that’s when Kilpatrick and her team got a high-profile chance to shine. With the newfound cash, CardioDx fleshed out a sales force in just three months and hit the ground running, fanning out across the country to make the case for Corus CAD.

Now, with more than 50,000 tests processed, Kilpatrick credits her success to the same principle that led to MedtechVISION: If you give talented people a chance to excel, they’re likely to do just that.

“I pride myself on building extremely strong teams,” she said. “I want the best people at the table no matter what they look like, no matter what their chromosomes are.”

Of course, chromosomal diversity hasn’t always been commonplace in the worlds of science and math. At Georgia Tech back in the ’80s, Kilpatrick was often the only woman in her undergraduate engineering classes and almost unfailingly the only Y-lacking student at the doctoral level. Upon graduation, she was among the first 15 women to get a doctorate of mechanical engineering from the school.

“Looking back, I don’t know how I did that,” she said. “Young women and minorities, they have to see a role model to actually have this idea early on that that could be them. We pattern-match naturally.”

Now, serving on advisory boards at her alma mater, Kilpatrick gets to play a part in making sure the next generation of biomedical engineers has an easier time visualizing success. And while female enrollment has increased in every corner of science, math and engineering, the biomedical field has diversified at a much faster rate, she said, a trend that comes as no great surprise to the former aerospace engineer.

Early in her career, Kilpatrick spent time at Pratt & Whitney, working as a structural engineer on the F-22 Raptor program. And while she was fascinated by the complexity and difficulty of the work, something about toiling in jet engines left her wanting.

“What I didn’t like was that I didn’t feel like there was a direct human impact to what I was doing,” she said. “So I became interested in medicine because, to me, that patient impact was just naturally appealing, and I think there’s something to that as applied to life sciences. That’s an underlying theme that tends to draw a lot of women into bioengineering.”

That’s borne out in the numbers, Kilpatrick said, as women now make up almost 50% of the undergrad population in biomedical engineering, setting the stage for a more diverse industry as they advance through academia and into leadership roles.

On the way there, women need to know that they won’t be able to get away with timidity and expect to succeed, Kilpatrick said. If you want to progress, at any level, you need to speak up and invite the challenge, not sit back and wait for an invitation, she said.

“Once you’re ready, ask for the opportunity,” she said. “Doorways don’t approach you; you approach a doorway.”