⚕ Doctorpreneurs: Dr Philip Gan 🔪

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This week's Doctorpreneur of Doctology is Dr Philip Gan.

Malaysian born but Australian-bred, Philip is married to another Doctor, despite telling himself as a Medical Student he would not do that!

With a daughter in the first year of medical school and a son about to graduate as a Doctor, Philip is a Surgeon in regional Victoria (and Director of Surgery too), but also an inventor of medical devices, one of his "side projects".

What organisation / startup did you found?

I founded Livac Pty Ltd on April Fool’s Day, 2010, as the vehicle to develop and commercialise what was purely a concept in my head at the time for a novel surgical device.

The company has since been restructured, with the umbrella company now being Livac Holding Co Pty Ltd, with subsidiaries under it.

What is its noble purpose? The company is focused on truly innovative (i.e. patented) technologies that advance minimally invasive (laparoscopic) surgery.

It has been said that inventors don’t just invent one thing, and this has been true for me. The LiVac Retractor is our first device and is a solid organ (liver and spleen) retractor which uses suction to create a vacuum between the target organ and diaphragm, thereby joining them.

This enables the surgeon to access the underlying surgical field. It does not require an additional surgical incision and is very gentle, even on soft, fatty livers which are generally easier to injure, or the spleen which carries 20% of your cardiac output!

The LiVac Sling is our second device (also patented) which can retract virtually all the other organs and is completely internal. We did progress it through a registered "beta" version which tested well but needs commercial tooling before we can formally launch it.

There are other pipeline devices as well, which will have to wait in turn.

Tell me about the first 10 years of your life?

I was born in Malaysia of Chinese-Malaysian (father) and Australian "First Fleet" (mother) descent, then migrated to Australia in 1978 just as I turned eleven.

My mother was a nurse, and my father a businessman turned entrepreneur. They met when my father was a student in Melbourne back in the late 1950s. Traits from both have manifested in my career as a regional general surgeon who embraced innovation and became an inventor as well.

I went to a government primary school in Malaysia and spoke fluent Malay. Being the second eldest of four children, we grew up in a loud and bustling home. My two younger brothers and I were known as “the Gan boys” and were mischievous. I recall implanting an explosive in my one of my father’s cigarettes, which exploded when he lit up whilst queueing in a bank. Back in those days, banks had armed guards and it created quite a storm.

I also added salt to the sugar bowl before my parents entertained a close friend for a weekend breakfast and found it hilarious that he was too polite to comment until my father tasted his!

Australia was our second home with regular visits to my mother’s family and became our first home when we migrated. Somewhere along the way, I grew up.

What age were you when you had your first paying job? What was it? Moving from Malaysia to Australia was a financial challenge to our family. Dad had to start from scratch, the exchange rate from the Malaysia Ringgit to Aussie Dollar was abysmal, and Mum worked night shifts as a nurse.

I started work at the age of 13, catching the bus from Doncaster to Melbourne city each Saturday to work five hours at an Asian take-away outlet in the Centrepoint Mall. I remember working 60 hours a week all summer when I was in Year Nine to save up for my first SLR camera – at a rate of $3 per hour.

My father eventually started his own Asian food outlet business which became very successful, and I worked in his outlets through secondary school and even a little at the start of university.

I did work for a short while in a camera store at Doncaster Shoppingtown when I was a Year 11 student. I was too nervous to ask what I would be paid but was offered a job when I answered all the owner’s photography questions correctly.

I quit when I opened my pay packet and found that he was paying me $2.40 per hour and went back to the take-away outlets!

What made you want to be a Doctor and what specialty did you choose? Why? I was fascinated by science and the human body from a young age. I used to read my mother’s nursing books back in early primary school and had a prized “Visible Man” anatomical model of the human body, which I had to assemble. I therefore knew all the major organs and structure of the skeleton back in grade 4.

I was always creative, and visuospatial, so was inclined to surgery from around the age of ten. I entered Medicine at the University of Melbourne in 1985 and qualified as a General Surgeon at the start of 2001.

I loved laparoscopic surgery from the outset, even in those very early days of single-chip cameras and more limited equipment. General Surgery gave me a broad palette to paint with, and I was able to apply laparoscopic surgery as widely as upper GI-bariatrics, through to colorectal surgery; “top to bottom”.

What made you want to be an Entrepreneur or follow an alternative route? When exactly did you decide?

I never considered myself particularly inclined to business but rather fell into it as the necessary means to realise my creative ambitions. I had a “Eureka” moment in late 2009 when I saw a left lobe of liver sticking to the diaphragm from surface tension (moisture) alone during a laparoscopic gastric banding case – so much so that I did not need to insert a liver retractor. I thought that if surface tension could hold it up, why not suction?

I had no idea how to go about formally developing that concept and commercialising it, so had to muddle my way and learn the hard way. I did make my own prototype out of a home-made clay mould and liquid silicone purchased through the internet, which worked to suction two large fit-balls together.

I met a Patent Attorney (whom I have stuck with since) and the rest was through introductions in what is a relatively small industry in Australia. So far, it has been a ten-year journey!

Are you still practicing as a Doctor now? If yes, do you intend to stop if your organisation or project takes off?

I am a very busy general surgeon and Director of Surgery at the Public hospital (Southwest Healthcare) where I have been working for the last nearly 19 years. This is in addition to my private practice.

I love surgery, and fully intend to continue in my chosen career. I may ease off so that I burn the candle at one end instead of both. but I would drive my wife crazy if I retired early.

Why do you think traditionally many Doctors struggle with entrepreneurship? Or at least they are perceived to? Entry into medical school tends to select more for science and maths subjects that scale well for ATAR scores, with a smattering of humanities, so perhaps some of those with a bent for business are “selected out”. Entrepreneurship seems to bring a skillset and mindset of its own, and some people seem to be “born to it”.

Whilst there are certainly plenty of Doctors who have carried those traits naturally into their practice of medicine, I suspect they are in the small minority. Creativity in the sense of conceiving and breathing life into something entirely novel is a completely separate skill again. It means thinking outside the box, and it does not necessarily follow that a creative person will have entrepreneurial inclinations or business skills as well.

My medical degree did not prepare me in the slightest to even set up my surgical practice, much less build a novel medical devices company.

What is your favourite quote?

A brilliant physician and friend of mine, who was trying to cut back his clinical load in his early 60s said to me, “Phil, I just want to cut back to full time work!”.

It gave perspective into the hard work that doctors put into their careers.

What would you do in the event of a Zombie Apocalypse?

I would hide in my bunker of a home, playing music on my rather elaborate audiophile system, and learn to dance with my wife without stepping on her toes.

You can find out more about Livac here:


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