Martin Frost: Why I’m standing down as CEO of CMR Surgical - and Per Vegard Nerseth is the right man to succeed me
Martin Frost, the CEO who has led CMR Surgical from start-up to unicorn status in less than six years, is to stand down.
The Impington-based surgical robotics company has announced Per Vegard Nerseth, senior vice president and managing director at multi-billion dollar robot multinational ABB Robotics, as his replacement.
Speaking to the Cambridge Independent from India, Martin said Per Vegard would take over from January 1 and he would aid the transition in the early months of 2020 before taking a sabbatical. He will remain on the CMR Surgical board as a non-exec director.
CMR Surgical is beginning to roll out Versius, its next generation robotics system, to hospitals around the world, with one in Pune, India, becoming the first to adopt the technology.
Martin said: “When you give birth to a company, lead it and it becomes big and successful, there is always a question of what’s next.
“What’s next for CMR is multiple countries, multiple procedures, growing the business, scaling manufacturing and scaling the supply chain.
“I love the business. I love the team, the people, the mission. But when you start a company you have to ask yourself at different stages whether you are the right CEO to lead the business forward in the next three or four years.
“It is always tempting, personally, to say naturally you are the best person – and part of me wants to say that. But I think in all honesty the task that we face as a business isn’t just growing CMR to being the largest medical devices company in Cambridge. We’ve got to build and scale a seriously large business.
“We’ve got the capability here of building a business that employs thousands.
“That means the business becomes more about structure and process.”
Martin said his skill-set had been utilised in building the company from scratch to what it is today: “It’s pretty hard to scale a business from nothing to a billion pounds!” he said.
But he suggested Per Vegard, who has been in his current post for nine years, was well-placed for the next phase of scaling globally. Swiss-Swedish multinational ABB Robotics employs more than 7,000 people in 53 countries, and has installed more than 400,000 industrial robots. It is building what it calls the world’s “most advanced, automated and flexible factory in the robotics industry” near Shanghai at a cost of $150million.
“Finding a world-class person to take on the reins is really difficult,” said Martin. “So the timing is largely driven by the availability of Per Vegard. People like that don’t come on the market very often.
“I will stay on the board and help Per Vegard as much as I can in the next few months and then transition out and take some time out with my long-suffering family.”
Martin acknowledged that the never-ending travel schedule had played a part in his decision.
“I’m in Delhi. I was in Boston on Saturday. I’ll be in San Francisco and Italy in January. It’s fantastic but you have to have put the company and its mission first.
“It sounds glamorous spending a lot of time overseas and going to congresses. But when you travel a lot, you find the place you like most is the place you live in – and you don’t see it very much.”
Versius has some notable competitors, but Martin is confident its unique technology – which is flexible, transportable and affordable – will prove a game-changer, helping to bring the era of surgical robotics for minimal access surgery into mainstream general hospitals, including in the NHS.
“The most important thing for me is to step down at a point where the company has already got the certifications and approvals in place to scale the business in the UK, Europe, India, Australia,” he said.
“There will be more announcements in the next few months about other hospitals we’ll be working with around the world. It is a very good place for Per Vegard to start. The space we’re in is moving very quickly so we had to do this quickly.”
Martin’s legacy will extend beyond the walls of hospital theatres.
“One of the things I’m proudest of is the number of really talented young people who we have recruited. We have 440 people in the business and the average age is around 30-31,” he said. “So many of those young people we have brought into medical devices for the first time and they are going to make a huge difference not just to CMR but to other companies.”
Versius biomimics the human arm, has fully wristed instruments and offers 3D HD vision for surgeons via its console.
“We know that we have a world-class design and a world-class team,” says Martin. “What we want to do is improve all of our processes and perfect them and make sure the 101st robot we put out is the same as the tenth or the 51st. That’s all about putting good processes in the supply chain and manufacturing. That is Per Vegard’s big skill-set as well as managing organisations.
“That’s where we all hope and investors hope CMR can get to. If we do that, we will be one of Cambridge’s largest employers. That can easily happen within three or four years.”
Per Vegard, who has been living in Switzerland, will now spend most of his time at Impington.
He said: “I feel privileged to be joining this vibrant, rapidly growing, world-leading company at such an exciting stage in its development. I look forward to using my previous robotics and manufacturing experience to contribute to the future of CMR.”
Martin, meanwhile, will take a sabbatical – camping.
“I haven’t been on holiday with my wife for six years without my phone,” he said. “This time the phone won’t be coming. I don’t know what’s next but there will be a what next...That is both a scary and a fun thought. You have to put yourself in a position where you create space for something to happen.”
More by this authorPaul Brackley