The ultimate personal technology

April 21, 2010: 3:00 AM ET

Medtronic CEO Bill Hawkins wants to turn pacemakers, stents, and defibrillators into tiny mobile devices.

Bill Hawkins in Los Angeles, home of Medtronic's diabetes operations

Rave all you want about your favorite iPad apps or your new featherweight netbook with a customized cover. The ultimate personal technologies are the pacemakers, insulin pumps, and neurostimulators made by Medtronic -- and, says CEO Bill Hawkins, those devices are every bit as sophisticated as the gadgets churned out in Silicon Valley.

Is Medtronic the Apple (AAPL) of medical technology? "I'd say Apple is the Medtronic of computing," Hawkins replies.

Not that anyone would mistake Hawkins and Steve Jobs for each other. A Durham, N.C., native who joined Medtronic (MDT) almost a decade ago, Hawkins, 56, often appears more like a churchgoing engineer (which he is) than a visionary.

But Hawkins, who became CEO in August 2007, is pushing Medtronic beyond its bioengineering roots into areas such as data collection, monitoring, and analysis via devices implanted in the human body. It sounds a bit like science fiction, but actually it is the kind of work companies like IBM (IBM) and HP (HPQ) have been doing for years -- with nonhuman subjects.

"We are in a unique position to be more than a therapeutic-device company," Hawkins says. "We can embed sensors and diagnostics into our devices that allow patients and doctors to be better engaged in the management of their chronic disease."

Hawkins's expansion into health information technology comes as growth is slowing in cardiovascular devices, a business Medtronic has been in since it was founded 60 years ago by electrical engineer Earl Bakken. Under Hawkins's predecessors, including Bill George, now a management professor at Harvard Business School, Medtronic entered new businesses largely by acquiring companies in areas such as diabetes, degenerative-disk therapy, and neurostimulation, which can be used to treat Parkinson's disease.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Hawkins, one of the few engineers to have run Medtronic since Bakken, is looking to his own scientists to develop the company's next blockbusters. If Medtronic's technologists can pull it off, the development of truly interactive life-saving devices has big implications for patient care and health-care costs.

Take chronic heart disease, which carries a price tag of almost $40 billion a year in the U.S. Patients often suffer from a buildup of fluid in the lungs that can literally drown them. Without constant monitoring, the usual course is an emergency-room visit to remove the fluid.

But if a pacemaker or a defibrillator had a sensor built in that monitored the fluid buildup, a doctor and a patient could simply get a notification on a BlackBerry or an iPhone of a dangerous trend, and drugs could be modified to prevent a trip to the emergency room.

Medtronic is in the early phases of adding that kind of capability to its devices, some of which will also be about the size of a large vitamin pill in a few years. It is in talks with IBM, Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), Cisco (CSCO), and other infotech companies to develop ways to better manage and communicate all the data that patients, caregivers, and doctors will have access to in the future.

Eventually Hawkins hopes Medtronic and its partners in health care can collect the information to look for patterns that might lead to better, cheaper outcomes for individual patients.

"These kinds of medical technologies are going to create massive amounts of data," says John Kelly, IBM SVP and director of research. "We believe over the next decade one of the biggest new applications in IT will be connecting these devices and sifting through the data they create in almost real time."

These technologies may not sound as exciting as the newest tablet computer -- and certainly no consumer covets a wireless pacemaker the way he might yearn for a cool wireless phone -- but there's one thing Hawkins has going for him that his Silicon Valley peers don't: His company builds technology that people literally can't live without.

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About This Author
Michael Copeland
Michael Copeland

Michael V. Copeland joined FORTUNE as a senior writer in September 2007. Copeland has covered everything from electric cars to e-readers. He is a creator of Tech Mate, an irreverent video series in which he debates (and skewers) digital issues of the day. Before joining FORTUNE, Copeland was a senior writer at Business 2.0. Copeland graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.

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