Unlike many of the big name CEOs we’ve talked about, the average person is unlikely to have heard of Jay Flatley. He isn’t staggeringly wealthy like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, doesn’t give lengthy interviews about his ideas or business philosophy like many of the US’ great tech entrepreneurs, and doesn’t write books. Despite all this, it’s very likely that the work he and his business, Illumina, have done in the past 20 years will have a more significant and personal impact on our lives than any of the other business leaders we’ve covered.
Bringing experience to innovation
Unlike most major figures in the tech industry, Flatley didn’t launch his career during the economic boom of the 90s. In 1993, a year before Amazon was founded, Flatley was leading another business he co-founded, Molecular Dynamics, to its first public offering. There he helped to launch 15 different instrumentation systems, including the first capillary-based DNA sequencer, before the company was acquired by Amersham Pharmacia Biotech.
Before his tenure there, Flatley was Vice President of Engineering and Strategic Planning for Plexus Computers, Executive Vice President for Manning Technologies and held a number of different positions at Spectra Physics. By the time he joined Illumina in 1999, he had decades of technical knowledge and business experience to back him up. While other tech startups of the era experimented with innovative new management ideas and business philosophies, Flatley competently and quietly lead Illumina to stunning success using what he had already learned.
Building a gene sequencing empire
As just one of many fresh-faced startups in the year 2000, Illumina generated a moderately respectable $1.3 million in revenue. Just one and a half decades later, before Flatley stepped down from his position as CEO in 2016, Illumina’s annual sales figures stood at a staggering $2.2 billion.
While Flatley led Illumina, the business grew at a rapid, nearly exponential rate, and in doing so, transformed what’s possible in medicine. In 2007 it cost approximately $1 million to sequence an entire human genome. By 2014, Illumina’s machines brought the cost down to a very manageable $1000. This transformed gene sequencing from a scientific pursuit into a commercially accessible service, and has made Illumina the undisputed leader in its industry.
Pursuing a passion
When asked about his success, Flatley doesn’t talk about the business’ growth, its success, or what he has personally gained. Instead, he discusses the goals he has for his work, and the potential he sees in the future of his industry.
He imagines a future where gene sequencing is cheap and routine, and where genomic diseases like cancer can be detected and successfully treated before they ever pose a threat. More importantly, he envisions a medical system where physicians can use genomic data to help make diagnoses, detect potential illnesses, and to create individually personalised medications. Genomic data would become a cornerstone of medicine in the 21st century, and open up new ways to study and begin to fight diseases and age-related disorders that aren’t currently considered treatable. Back in 2012, Matthew Ferber, director of the Molecular Genetic Laboratory at the Mayo Clinic, described the incoming (current) generation of gene sequencing tools as “akin to landing on the moon”.
Continuing to drive progress
Flatley is passionate about realising his vision in creating the medical system of the future. Since stepping down as CEO at Illumina, he has continued to drive progress both there and at other businesses. At Illumina, Flatley continues to serve as the executive chairman of the board of directors.
Additionally, he also holds a number of other important positions that make him one of the most influential people in medical technology in the world. He chairs the board of directors for Illumina subsidiary, Helix, while acting as an advisory board member for UC San Diego’s Moore Cancer Center, sitting on the Board of Trustees of the Salk Institute, and also serving on the Boards of Directors at Coherent, Denali, and Juno Therapeutics. These businesses focus on genomics, medical technologies, and gene therapies for cancer treatment.
What we can learn
Jay Flatley shows that world-changing startup success doesn’t necessarily have to rely on charismatic silicon valley entrepreneurs with celebrity status. What it does take is the dedicated and innovative pursuit of a world-changing idea. More importantly, his story shows us that experience matters. Flatley’s decades spent in startup development, leadership, and tech allowed him to lead Illumina on a very efficient and strategic growth trajectory, while many of the other big-name entrepreneurs of the early 2000s had to find their way one step at a time. By strategically targeting gene sequencing technology, and drastically reducing its cost, Flatley deliberately created a wide range of new possibilities for the medical industry, and turned his business into the lynchpin of an entire new industry.