Cryolife CEO Vadanee Lau left finance for a new career in stem-cell storage
After working in banking for many years, Vadanee Lau decided that it was time to move on after receiving an offer from Cryolife, a private cord-blood bank, to be its CEO. “Everybody knows that working in the finance sector means making money. I had reached a stage in my career where I wanted to do something meaningful that can help people and contribute to society. I am a person who loves to take up new challenges and I wanted to lead a business where no one has yet ventured,” she says.
“Hong Kong’s ageing population has added to the burden on the city’s already stretched medical resources and I wanted to do something about it, so I accepted the offer to be Cryolife’s CEO.”
Cryolife was the first private cord-blood bank to be established in Hong Kong. Cord blood – the blood that stays in the placenta and umbilical cord after a baby is born – contains stem cells that can be used to treat genetic and other disorders later in the baby’s life.
As a veteran in marketing and product development, Lau brought valuable experience in customer service to the job. “I think the reason that I got the job was because of my diversity. I have experience in various banking departments, which has prepared me to take on a general management role,” she says.
“My strength is in marketing and customer-experience management. I believe that understanding your customers, knowing their demands and meeting those demands are the keys to successful marketing. No matter what role you have within the organisation, you will perform better if you know who your customers are and interact with them,” she says.
As CEO, Lau makes it a priority to meet customers every week to listen to what they want. The results have been fruitful. For example, Cryolife’s cord-blood storage service used to only offer an 18-year plan. After talking to customers, Lau discovered that many parents wanted to extend the storage period beyond the age when their children reached adulthood, so she introduced plans to store blood for up to 28 years. “If I had not talked to customers, I would not have known that,” she says. “Parents are also concerned about the fees associated with stem-cell treatment, so we launched CryoSure protection for our customers.”
Parents who want to store cord blood for their children must inform the doctor before the baby is born. The bank will provide a collection kit for the doctor to collect the blood when the baby arrives, which will be transported back to the laboratory within 24 hours.
“There are two charges involved in storing cord blood – processing and storage. Our colleagues in the laboratory will examine the quality of the blood to ensure cell viability and no contamination. The cost of storage depends on the number of years that clients want to store it. They make a lump-sum payment, so there are no administration or hidden fees,” Lau says.
Parents in Hong Kong generally believe that storing cord blood is a way to protect their children. Both the versatility and availability of umbilical cord-blood stem cells make them a potent resource for transplant medicine.
The use of cord blood has increased substantially over the past ten years. Despite thousands of successful cases worldwide, though, some parents still have concerns over whether they will have a chance to use it because cord blood and stem-cell therapy remain unpopular among medical professionals.
In 2009, Lau saw a seven-year-old girl with cerebral palsy became the first patient from Hong Kong to receive a transplant using her own cord blood in the US. The girl, a client at Cryolife, showed significant improvement after receiving treatment. The case was a boost for the cord-blood business in Hong Kong.
“Stem-cell therapy is nothing new to local medical professionals, but the issue is getting them to use it,” Lau says. “The child’s parents wanted to give a cord-blood transplant a try and our company arranged medical professionals in the US and in Hong Kong for them to choose from. Doctors in the US with extensive experience in stem-cell therapy can provide fast, responsive and comprehensive information, which makes parents feel more comfortable about undergoing the treatment.”
Hong Kong doctors are well-informed about stem-cell therapy, but the local practice lags behind the US, Europe and much of Asia. “Hong Kong doctors still prefer traditional ways of treating patients that use target medicine over stem-cell therapy, so there are only a handful of cases involving the use of the therapy in Hong Kong. However, we strongly believe in the future of stem-cell therapy due to the massive extent of research and clinical trials, and the growing volume of medical treatment worldwide,” Lau says.
Despite a less enthusiastic reception from the medical sector, Lau makes a huge effort to try to promote the regenerative therapy. She often visits doctors and attends medical conferences to update medical professionals on the latest developments in the field.
“Ever since I was young, I have never hesitated to go the extra mile. This is something that I want to inspire my staff to do. If you want to be successful, don’t stick to doing what you are asked to do, or to the routine way of doing it, or to only doing things in your comfort zone. You need to commit to your company and take ownership in your position,” she says.
“For example, when a technical staff member who works in the laboratory accompanies a sales staff member to a client meeting, it is an eye-opening experience for them. They gain a thorough understanding of how the quality-assurance test they have worked so hard to pass can help clients gain confidence in the company. They also gain a deeper understanding of the client’s concerns and how their work can provide a better service. A quality operation is just as important as attentive service,” she says.
Lau believes that being exposed to as many different aspects of the business world as possible is the key to success. “When I was in banking, I was very lucky to gain a Chevening Scholarship to attend a business leadership programme at the University of Cambridge and London Business School. It was such an incredible experience. I got to meet students from around the world who worked in industries that do not exist in Hong Kong,” she says.
“Now as the leader of a company, I hope to provide more exposure for my staff and one way to do this is for them to go through various external quality-assurance tests. When I joined Cryolife, the company had already earned accreditation by AABB [the American Association of Blood Banks], the highest professional standard in the industry. However, we could not be satisfied by that. In 2010, we gained another quality-assurance standard by passing the Hong Kong Q-Mark Service Scheme. This year we have been awarded the prize for Best Cord Blood Bank 2012/2013 by the Asia Stem Cell Association.”
With so much on her plate, Lau says it is difficult to pinpoint which are working days and which are not, but that does not mean she cannot have a good work-life balance. “I think I do a pretty good job planning my schedule,” she says. “Because I plan ahead, I enjoy quality time with my family when it is time to relax, and work hard when it is time to get things done. Every Sunday, I have in mind a list of things that I need to achieve the following week,” she says.
“Exercise also helps me blow off steam after work. I go jogging to help take my mind off work and relax.”
Lau thinks people need to have different goals at different stages in their lives. “The golden age to learn and explore is between 20 and 30 years old, to gain more exposure to help find out your strengths and interests. People in their thirties already have a clear picture of what they want to do and they should build the foundation that prepares them to take their career to a higher level. After 40 is the era of personal achievement – this is when you take up a leadership role,” she says.
LAU’S SCIENTIFIC-INNOVATION WISHLIST
Gene therapy Stem-cell-based therapy may help cure hereditary diseases
iPS cell research Induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell-expansion technology could be used to treat conditions such as muscular dystrophy
Stem cell medicine Its regenerative potential can mean faster healing and even re-growth of body parts
Self-cord-blood stem cell advances May lead to treatments for autism and other neurodegenerative disorders