11 May 2017

Going with the Flow

Cynthia Fisher has dedicated her career to tapping “liquid assets” to meet human needs
Re: James Koch (MBA 1978)
by Robert S. Benchley


“If I look back at my career, I’ve focused on liquid assets: blood, water, and beer.”

That is the wry encapsulation Cynthia Fisher (MBA 1990) uses to describe her professional activities. Like Fisher herself, it is smart, efficient, and results-driven—and it gets the laugh.

Broken down, liquid by liquid, the observation refers to her involvement in, first, the 1993 launch of ViaCord, a company that enabled parents to store their newborn’s umbilical cord blood as a source of stem cells that help treat life-threatening diseases like leukemia and certain genetic disorders. Then came the 2011 launch of WaterRev, an investment company that focuses on novel technologies which enable sustainable practices of water use. In 2012, she joined the board of the Boston Beer Company, producer of Samuel Adams, Angry Orchard, and other beverage brands, which was founded by her husband, James Koch (AB 1971, JD/MBA 1978).

Now Fisher is also on the board of Easterly Government Properties, and she’s launching two additional businesses: FitMoney, a nonprofit K–12 financial literacy program, and a health IT company that is still in the business-plan stage—so she may be in need of a new quip.

Under the humor, however, is a no-nonsense approach to business performance that stems from Fisher’s upbringing as the daughter and granddaughter of rural central Pennsylvania entrepreneurs who taught her that great ideas can be backed with the best of intentions, but they still have to generate dependable cash flow.

“My father had a CPA firm and occasionally acted as an angel investor,” she says. “In all, he helped start 30 different businesses in our area. He occasionally brought my sisters and me into the businesses as a learning exercise. I sat in on board meetings as a kid and saw how ideas could come to fruition and become real, productive companies.

“I remember my dad visiting ViaCord in the early days, when I had only 10 employees. He came in and said, ‘Where’s your cash register? I don’t hear the cash register ringing.’ That was his way of saying we had to make money. ViaCord needed to be self-sustaining if it was going to be successful.”

Another family lesson, about taking the long view, was first put to the test soon after Fisher, a standout field hockey player, entered Ursinus College. The small liberal arts school, located 30 miles outside of Philadelphia, was known at the time for being the top field-hockey school in the country. Its premed program was also highly respected, and Fisher, who was majoring in biophysics, realized she had to make a choice. She chose science but ultimately deferred her medical school acceptance, instead taking a job with IBM after she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1983. Fisher spent five years at IBM, working with clients in health care, insurance, and defense.

“I found I appreciated business in ways I never expected,” she says, “and probably have affected the health of more people as a businessperson than I ever would have as a clinician.”

But if a business career was Fisher’s new goal, and if she was going to become a leader, she soon realized that she needed a more formal education than that she had received in visiting the startups financed by her father. In 1988, she enrolled at HBS.

“The MBA program gave me the basic tools of business, and it taught me how to think as a businessperson,” says Fisher. “The case-study method is fantastic at making you assess all the factors you have to deal with. It says, Here’s the situation; what’s the action plan? And what’s your contingency plan if that doesn’t work? Oftentimes it’s Plan C or D that gets implemented. That has been true more often than not in my experience.”

Banking on Blood

The “blood” portion of Fisher’s career began after receiving her MBA, when she joined Haemonetics, a global provider of blood and plasma products and services.

“It was there that I saw the supply-demand issues—the need for donated bone marrow and stem cells that is so challenging for patients with diseases like leukemia—and that there were more people in need than there were in supply,” she says. “What was liquid gold, for patients in need, was being thrown out in birthing suites every day. I believed that families should be able to bank their children’s cord blood or make donations; but there needed to be a trusted, quality laboratory and logistics business enabling them to do so. Haemonetics didn’t have an interest, so I left and founded ViaCord with my own money.”

ViaCord’s services enabled anybody having a baby at any hospital in the world to bank the cord blood. Trained obstetricians treated the procedure like an organ transplant, with all of the systems in place. Medical couriers transported the blood to ViaCord’s central laboratory at the University of Cincinnati’s Hoxworth Blood Center, where it was processed and stored. Parents paid an initial processing fee at the time of delivery and an annual storage fee in the month of the child’s birthday.

At the time, most organizations dealing in blood were nonprofits, such as the Red Cross. ViaCord pushed the FDA to regulate the industry, and the company became a pioneer in establishing a regulatory model and developing good manufacturing practices for stem cells and human tissue.

ViaCord’s first transplant was in 1995, saving the life of a young girl with leukemia by using blood from her baby sister’s umbilical cord and placenta. Next, the company made history by providing the first cord-blood stem cell transplant in treating sickle cell anemia. Today, more than 30,000 children have been transplanted with cord blood from units, privately from family members and publicly from donors from around the world.

In 2000, Fisher founded ViaCell, a cellular medicines company that became the parent of ViaCord and the subject of an HBS case study. She took ViaCell public in 2005 and sold it to Perkin Elmer in 2007 for $300 million.

Water and Beer

Her investment firm WaterRev (short for Water Revolution), came about because, as had been the case with stem cells, Fisher began observing a critical—and growing—gap between supply and demand.

“Blood and water are both life transport systems—our rivers and oceans are our earth’s circulatory system,” she says. “If you block the flow, pretty soon you’ll have a problem. Despite that, although we all share this resource, we don’t respect its value and its use. Everybody believes unlimited access to water is their God-given right, and that plays out in its use and abuse.”

There is a nexus of food, energy, and water, Fisher explains, at which the three sectors have an interdependent relationship. It takes energy to access water, it takes water to produce energy, and—with growing food—agriculture uses 85 percent of water in many parts of the world.

“These three sectors need to work together in harmony,” Fisher says. “The biggest opportunity lies in changing the behavior and economics in agriculture, and, secondly, in industry. Misuse with no consequences and the lack of incentives for proper use are extremely problematic. At WaterRev, we are investing in game-changing companies that are trying to make that sustainable impact with ‘no-brainer’ economics.”

She also sits on the board of Water.org, a nonprofit organization founded by actor Matt Damon and engineer and CEO Gary White, which is dedicated to enabling people in the developing world gain access to safe water and sanitation.

Beer, which happens to be more than 90 percent water, became Fisher’s third liquid asset. She and Koch had been married for 18 years when she joined his company’s board, yet she jokes that he says, “I’m off the clock” when it comes to discussing business at home.

Still, they do occasionally talk about the challenges and responsibilities of leadership.

“Pursuing your passion and making your vision a reality can have a real impact on people’s lives, changing their trajectories for decades—and, maybe, centuries—to come,” says Fisher. “That should not be taken lightly. When you are making a decision, you have to ask yourself about the long-term impact, and whether you are doing the right thing. Your decisions are your legacy.”

One of Fisher’s favorite analogies is that being in business is like rowing crew.

“When the team pulls together, and everybody is at their best, there’s nothing like it,” she says. “As a business leader, it’s what you live for, because those moments are very special. When it’s done well, and done right—wow!”

Next Steps

Fisher is reaching for a couple more of those “wow” moments with her new projects.

FitMoney came about, in part, from teaching and mentoring college and graduate students,” she says. “A repetitive theme was that there is little education by family members or in schools about personal finance. Most students have no sense of personal financial control, nor have they worked to have a financial safety net. Graduate students and budding entrepreneurs who were personally deep in debt have pulled up to my office in brand-new cars. Several of them were continuing to make poor financial choices, and, when we reviewed their personal balance sheets, they were completely out of control. How could they manage their company’s finances if they can’t manage their own?”

Believing that financial literacy needs to begin in childhood, Fisher and two partners developed the basic structure for FitMoney, a program to be embedded in K–12 curricula.

“We want children to become confident and competent in managing their personal finances, and to take responsibility for their future financial fitness,” she says.

FitMoney began a pilot program this year with 400 fourth-graders in North Andover, Massachusetts, where one of Fisher’s partners, Jennifer Price (EdD 2012), is superintendent of schools. The plan is to engage 6,000 students next year and eventually have the program expand nationwide.

Fisher is also working with a team on a new idea in the health IT space—one she believes has the potential to increase the quality of patient care, while lowering costs by giving control of health care information back to the patient.

“We are looking to turn health care on its head,” says Fisher. “In today’s system, the last person who has control of their health information and their own destiny is the patient. You would never run a business the way health care is run today. The best quality of health care at the lowest cost will happen when the consumer—the patient—is empowered to be the customer.”

Her business interests have spanned a number of industries but Fisher says a common emotional thread runs through them all.

“I am passionately engaged in mission-driven enterprises that make a significant difference in people’s lives,” she says.

That’s true, but isn’t Fisher still left with the task of coming up with something new to replace her “liquid assets” line?

“Maybe not,” she says, rising to the challenge. “Money and data both flow, don’t they?”

(photo by Tracy Powell)

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1990, Section E

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