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Business in Vancouver – Carolyn Cross: Cross roads

February 4, 2014

Carolyn Cross survived a plane crash and emerged with a sense of urgency to get her company’s medical device more widely adopted

By Nelson Bennett

Four dramatic scenes from Carolyn Cross’ extraordinary life so far:

A hospital, her two-year-old daughter fighting for life from a misdiagnosed drug-resistant bacterial infection, cementing Cross’ resolve to develop broader applications for the photodisinfection technology her company developed.

Falling from the sky in a crippled airplane – certain she is about to die – texting a farewell message to her three young children.

Being pulled from the burning wreckage by Simon Pearce, a passerby, who witnessed the crash that killed the pilot.

Another hospital – Vancouver General – where Cross’ nasal passages are disinfected with MRS-Aid – the device her company developed – prior to surgery.

“I don’t believe in coincidences anymore,” said the 51-year-old CEO of Ondine Biomedical Inc. “I believe it’s all kind of predestined.”

Even before the accident, Cross was driven, say those who know her. But her close brush with death has made her even more determined to see her company’s photo-disinfection technologies more widely adopted by medical practitioners because she believes they could be an important tool in combatting drug-resistant infections.

“One of the things that I realized is how short time is,” she said. “And one of the – maybe unfortunate – side effects is that I feel like I need to accomplish more sooner.”

Cross was among the survivors of the October 27, 2011, airplane crash that claimed the life of the pilot, and later the co-pilot, and which triggered a lawsuit against Northern Thunderbird Air Inc. Cross is among the litigants suing the airline for negligence.

Eight minutes before the plane came down in Richmond, she realized it was in trouble, that it might crash, and composed a cogent, deeply moving farewell text message to her children, hit the send button, then sat back and waited to die.

She sustained head trauma andbroken ribs, teeth and pelvis and was forced to hand over the reins of the company for several months while she recovered.

“Even though she was acutely ill herself, her concern was for her company – that everyone was taken care of there,” said Elizabeth Bryce, medical director for infection control at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH).

It was Bryce who spearheaded a successful trial at VGH to demonstrate MRSAid’s efficacy in reducing post-operative infections.

Cross said a tough CEO is expected to“suck it up” and get back to work, which she did, after a five-month recovery. But to her great annoyance, she began to suffer from depression – one of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

“I have three small kids, so I had to be the mom, I had to be the spouse, I had to be the CEO,” she said. “I didn’t want to indulge in this self-pity and I wanted to get myself back in the saddle as quickly as possible, not realizing that that was exactly the wrong thing to do. I couldn’t have done it worse.

“I found it ridiculously indulgent that I should be allowed to live and then be depressed. You can be forgiven the panic moments, the nightmares – that I can forgive myself. But to be disconnected and despondent and grey when I’ve been given the gift of life – I was really hard on myself on that.”

For better or worse, the accident reset her life clock, leaving her with a sense of urgency. After all, there is a growing global problem of infections becoming increasingly resistant to drugs, and her company has a tool that could be part of the solution.

Bacteria, viruses and fungi that cause a wide range of diseases and infections – tuberculosis being one of the more worrisome, according to the World Health Organization – mutate. Some strains become resistant to drugs that once killed them.

Photodisinfection uses laser light, not drugs, to kill pathogens. Cross believes it could be an important tool for fighting drug-resistant infections.

Interestingly, for the CEO of a medical device company, Cross does not have a science background. She comes from the world of finance.

Born in Montreal, Cross moved to Waterloo at an early age, obtained a BA with honours from the University of Western Ontario and an MBA from York University. She also has a chartered financial analyst designation.

Cross has worked as a fund manager, equity analyst and portfolio manager. Her last job in finance was vice-president at Royal Bank Investment Management Inc.

She was introduced to Ondine through her husband, Bob Cross, chairman of Bankers Petroleum Ltd. (TSX:BNK), who had invested in Ondine, a small biomedical device company that had been working to commercialize photo-disinfection technology developed by University College London.

The first application was Periowave, a device for treating gum disease. Cross came aboard as CEO in late 1999, when the company was focused strictly on commercializing Periowave, now widely used by dentists in Canada, South Korea, Mexico and the U.K.

It wasn’t until her daughter was hospitalized with a tonsil infection that Cross became determined to broaden the company’s focus. Because she did not respond to antibiotics, her daughter was misdiagnosed.

“For over a week, I was watching her in isolation with tubes and in really rough shape, wondering if she was going to survive,” Cross said. “And it was at that time that I’m saying, ‘Here I’m worrying about gum disease. I have to take this to the next level.’”

She refocused the company to develop MRSAid. Cross admits that, as a CEO, she might not have made that decision were it not for the fact that, as a mother, she was alarmed that a simple tonsil infection nearly killed her daughter due to drug resistance.

“I would have focused more on just the first application, but I diversified our corporate development strategies into hospital-acquired infections after that time, and very aggressively so.”

Cross is grateful to Bryce for spearheading a trial at VGH to demonstrate MRSAid’s efficacy. When used in conjunction with special sterilization body wipes prior to surgery on 5,000 patients, surgical site infections dropped 39% to 42% and readmissions due to post-operative infections declined from four cases per month to just 1.25.

“We saved more than $1 million in costs from surgical site infections,” Bryce said.

The pilot earned VGH an international innovation award. But so far, only one other hospital – Abbotsford – is using the device. Cross said that frustrates her. “I assumed – naively – that once I demonstrate in an across-the-board live demonstration at VGH there would be more interest, especially when VGH wins the innovation award,” she said.

In addition to Periowave and MRSAid, Ondine has developed Vitalwave, a device that uses photodisinfection to reduce the chances of transmitting HIV and other pathogens from mother to child.
It would be used to “decolonize” the birth canal prior to birth in the hope of reducing the chances of passing on the HIV to newborns. Its primary market would be Third World countries.

In addition to being passionate about her own company’s technology, Cross is an ardent champion of women in business. She is a member of the Vancouver chapter of the Women Presidents Organization (WPO), which provides peer support to women in business.

“Carolyn is a person who just sees when there’s a need and immediately comes up with a solution,” said Vancouver WPO chapter chairwoman Barbara Mowat. “She sees things others don’t see. She sees the benefits, and she just makes it happen.”