Life Outside the Medical Center

Many patients with failing kidneys live for dialysis treatments, but Jeff Burbank of NxStage Medical believes the opposite should be true

Six years ago, a man named Harvey Wells called NxStage Medical with a request. His life had been saved by the company’s innovative technology in renal care, and Wells wanted to tell other dialysis patients about how their lives could be improved as well. Before long, he was touring the Midwest in a Winnebago, visiting dialysis centers around the country and spreading the good word about NxStage’s renal revolution.

NxStage is a company that exists to improve the lives of renal patients by providing dialysis therapy that fits into their schedules, rather than requiring their schedules to revolve around therapy. Together with partners, patients, and a tremendous team of engineers, inventors, and staff, NxStage founder and chief executive officer Jeff Burbank takes this mission to heart. “We give people their lives back,” Burbank says. “We provide them with chronic care.”

When kidneys fail, the body is constantly exhausted and requires frequent dialysis therapy. In turn, that therapy is exhausting, as well as time-consuming, requiring up to four hours per day, three days per week at a dialysis center. The more frequent the treatment, the better the patients feel, but the more time they lose. Early in his career as an engineer in the industry, Burbank recognized that new technology needed to be developed so that patients could reap the clinical benefits of more frequent therapy without being bound to dialysis centers.

The original goal of the startup that would become NxStage was to improve vascular access—to ease the process of connecting to the patient’s blood. But it didn’t take long for the development team to shift to a logical next thought: If vascular access was made easy enough for patients to connect themselves, perhaps the machines could be made small enough to move into their homes. If that equipment was simple and safe enough for anyone to use, small enough to travel with, and as easy to install as plugging into a wall, there would no longer be a need for regular visits to a dialysis center. “The challenge was to unlock the technology to do all that,” Burbank says.

Fortunately, the team at NxStage was up to the challenge and has since delivered all of the technology to meet those needs. Fifteen years later, what was once a small, entrepreneurial endeavor is now a highly successful, commercial company. NxStage currently has more than one hundred patents and continues to refine, improve, and develop new offerings for patients. Technology to offer dialysis treatment while patients sleep is currently undergoing an approval process, and further down the pipeline are plans to introduce innovative options for peritoneal dialysis. “We have a wonderful start,” Burbank says. “We’ve learned so much from our patients, and we want to continue to make the process easier for them.”

NxStage has always prioritized relationships—with investors, staff, and especially patients. “When they have a problem, they call us any time day or night,” Burbank says. Thanks to NxStage, patients report having more energy to participate in activities that many healthy people take for granted. “Watching their kids play soccer, going shopping with their spouse, hosting a meal with friends,” Burbank says. “It’s the little things that make life, life.” These relationships—witnessing the powerful change that the therapy provides for patients—are what motivate Burbank and the NxStage team.

But all of this amazing technology does no good unless people with kidney failure know that it is available. Getting the word out about the company’s offerings has been a great challenge for NxStage, and one that inspired Burbank to develop his own skills in marketing and communications. From billboards to direct mail to patient organizations, NxStage has utilized multiple marketing tools to tell its story, but the most convincing advocates are other patients telling their own stories. Patients like Wells with his Winnebago, and others who have shared their stories via videos on NxStage’s website, are the company’s most powerful marketing tool. These are the stories that are most incredible, inspiring, and inviting to potential patients.

It’s a rare thing for a founder of a company to continue as its CEO for fifteen years, but Burbank has stayed the course at NxStage with consistency and grace. But from early teams, to becoming a startup, through venture capital, and now a public company with 3,500 employees, Burbank has never claimed the organization as his own. Instead, he works for the customers, employees, and investors. “They are the ones who decided that I’m the best guy to lead this company,” he says. “But the minute that’s no longer true, I want to bring in the best guy.”

For now and for the foreseeable future, Burbank is the best person to lead NxStage. His varied background in engineering and manufacturing, combined with skills and experience in marketing and communications, give him a unique ability to see the big picture in business. His understanding of clinical opportunities and environmental, logistical, and technical challenges are keys to staying ahead of the curve in the industry. His ability to articulate challenges and opportunities so that his team can develop successful ways to meet needs is what makes him an effective communicator. And while all of those things may seem difficult to tie together, Burbank does so with authenticity and appreciation for others, making him a truly dynamic leader.

Despite his impressive base of knowledge, extensive experience, and unwavering drive to achieve excellence, Burbank’s greatest source of pride is being a member of the incredible team at NxStage. “The work we do can only be done with a tremendous team,” he says. “Products don’t invent themselves or sell themselves. It’s all about the people who create them.” Those people are valued members of the NxStage team, as well as individuals with unique contributions and opinions.

Finding balance between encouraging individual contributions and building a stellar team is a high priority for Burbank, and the key to that balance at NxStage has been created in its culture. “That’s the way you build an amazing team,” he says.

“It is exciting to have stayed together with this team for all these years, pursuing what we came to do,” Burbank adds. “We produce innovate solutions that work. We want to make technology that is simpler, safer, and easier to use, so dialysis can become a smaller part of patients’ lives.”

That work translates into real stories about how NxStage Medical changes patient’s lives— like Wells’ and so many others. “Instead of patients living for dialysis, we want dialysis to get out of the way,” Burbank says. “That’s exactly what we’re doing at NxStage Medical—giving people the opportunity to live their lives.”