Ed Voboril


Bob Shaw

Alumni help steer innovation at McCormick

Ed Voboril comes full circle

For some time Ed Voboril had been discussing with Bill White, professor of industrial engineering and management sciences, the possibility of teaching at McCormick, even though Voboril and his wife had just started calling Arizona home. At the McCormick Advisory Council meeting in October 2006, the decision to teach was still not certain — until a disturbing phone call came from Voboril’s neighbor in Arizona. “I don’t know how to tell you this, but your house just burned down,” he recalls his neighbor saying.

“My wife, Melanie — a Northwestern alumna — and I had to make some important decisions right away,” says Voboril. In spite of what they had lost, they weighed their options and decided to take lemons and make lemonade. They have now made Chicago their home, where they can be close to family, and Voboril has committed to start teaching at McCormick. He also has become involved with a newly formed interdisciplinary group that is developing a cross-school course focused on the development of medical technology.

Voboril grew up in Braidwood, a small central Illinois town, and attended a high school with a graduating class of less than 25. A basketball coach told him about Northwestern — specifically about the Walter P. Murphy Cooperative Engineering Education Program. “There were many obstacles for me being from such a small town and school,” says Voboril. “In fact, there weren’t many math courses offered at my high school. As a result, I ended up taking correspondence classes, and Northwestern gave me credit for the work. I received a scholarship from Northwestern soon after.”

Then as now, the co-op program at McCormick allowed students to work with major corporations to receive hands-on training in their respective fields. Students alternate quarters in the classroom with quarters spent on the premises of major companies applying their newfound skills. Voboril credits his early days at his co-op sponsor, General Motors, as an integral part of his path to success. “Without the opportunities provided by GM via Northwestern,” he says, “I’m not quite sure where I’d be.”

Voboril graduated from McCormick in 1965 with a degree in industrial engineering and was then offered another great opportunity — a Harvard Business School fellow­ship through a GM-sponsored program. In 1967 he graduated in the top 1 percent of his class as a Harvard Baker Scholar. Armed with top honors from Harvard in addition to the robust engineering knowledge and experience gained at Northwestern, Voboril entered the job market. He returned to GM, working in the electromotive division for some time and then as a consultant. In 1969 he became the vice president of sales and marketing for a Chicago-based medical x-ray company, beginning an almost 40-year career in medical technology. Then, following stints running medical-device businesses in large companies like Honeywell and General Electric, he made the decision to help grow a smaller company.

In 1990 Voboril became CEO of Greatbatch, a company most notable for its founder’s significant medical invention, the pacemaker. Wilson Greatbatch created the well-known implantable cardiac device and went on to receive the National Medal of Technology and become a member of the Inventor’s Hall of Fame. At Greatbatch, Voboril worked to develop improved power sources for implantable medical devices, including pacemakers, defibrillators, drug pumps, and neurostimulators. In 1997 he became chairman of the board at Greatbatch when he led a leveraged buyout of the company. Three years later the company went public on the New York Stock Exchange. Voboril also continued his connection of many years with Northwestern as a member of the McCormick Advisory Council.

Voboril recently became chairperson of NUvention, an interdisciplinary program of McCormick’s Center for Entrepreneur­ship and Innovation that brings together faculty from McCormick, the School of Law, the Feinberg School of Medicine, and the Kellogg School of Management to develop courses where students experience the entire innovation/business life cycle from ideation to prototyping and business plan development. He is actively involved with InNUva­tion, a student organization at Northwestern focused on entrepreneurship, which has been the driving force behind the creation of NUvention.

When asked about his seemingly karmic return to Northwestern — as adjunct professor of biomedical engineering — Voboril emphasizes the importance of remaining a force in the development of future engineers and entrepreneurs.

“When I started in my field, you were an engineer, you were a finance person, or you were a salesman,” he says. “There was a sense of developing managers, not leaders. My involvement here at Northwestern is to help students see that they can be all of these things and to create interdisciplinary communities to build vital skills, especially communication and team building.”

His recent involvement with NUvention is a continuation of Voboril’s commitment to the development of good, reliable design that results in effective medical solutions. While working with these Northwestern students, he is helping to remove barriers to innovation and pave the way for future developments.

Bob Shaw navigates a multifaceted career

Since 1970 Bob Shaw’s mechanical engi­neering degree from McCormick has taken him from a nuclear submarine to an inno­vative diagnostic medical instruments company. He attributes his adaptability to the key teamwork and communication skills he gained in the undergraduate English and communications courses that were required of him as a McCormick undergraduate — and he is glad to see continued emphasis on these skills in the core engineering curriculum.

“Many students go into engineering because they enjoy science and math, and the nature of these disciplines often leads to a focus on independent study,” says Shaw. “However, it is important to remember that complex engineering concepts have to translate to real-life situations.”

While Northwestern was instrumental in building Shaw’s communications skills, it was his postgraduate Navy experience that elevated both his engineering expertise and personnel management abilities. As an electrical and communications officer on a nuclear submarine, Shaw was quickly immersed in the practical application of his education, learning the intricacies of engineering and leadership. In his role as an officer, he managed issues associated with complex systems and supervised 15 subordinates.

“Failures of the electrical systems or the propulsion plant on the sub could endanger the lives of the entire 120-man crew,” Shaw says. “It was critical to the mission of the submarine to maintain constant communications, even while submerged, and be able to respond within 15 minutes to a potential call to launch all 16 of its ballistic missiles.

“The submarine force was also one of the first to employ global positioning systems, various environmental control systems, and desalination equipment. It was my job to analyze these machines and their ability to execute critical tasks. To manage and communicate proficiently in these multifaceted systems was a challenge.”

After five years in the Navy, Shaw moved on to a unique opportunity when he acquired a portion of Milex Products Inc., a medical device company centered on women’s health. The company brought Shaw aboard in 1979 as coowner, quality-assurance director, FDA regulatory specialist, and sales and marketing strategist. His background in engineering — specifically product design and improvement — was most applicable when assessing the accuracy of measurements to safely develop devices treating conditions such as infertility and cancer screening.

“McCormick gave me the tools necessary to assess basic methods of approaching and analyzing problems,” says Shaw. “I learned to quantify solutions and look at best overall approaches. One example of this was when I moved a number of products from latex to silicone, reducing the risk of allergic reactions. Changes in cancer screening device designs allowed physicians to perform tests in the office that had previously required hospitalization.”

In 1978 Shaw returned to Northwestern for a master of management degree with a dual management and marketing major. At this point in his career, he had more than 200 employees reporting to him and felt the need for the added academic background in management and personnel issues. His courses at the Kellogg School of Manage­ment refreshed skills he had gained as an undergraduate.

Shaw now serves as a consultant at McCormick, assisting with the evaluation of undergraduate engineering design programs. He also provides donor and advisory support for the school’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. He is a member of the McCormick Advisory Council and has served on its subcommittee evaluating professional engineering programs.

“My best advice for McCormick students is to learn how to express ideas and develop problem-solving skills with a team,” he says. Those skills have allowed Bob Shaw to successfully navigate the challenges of two very different careers and serve him well in his ongoing role as an adviser to McCormick.

—Lina Sawyer