John Abele is a world-class disruptor and has powerful examples to prove it. The retired founding chairman of Boston Scientific, Mr. Abele has radically changed the culture of medicine through technological and educational innovations, developing some of the first-to-market devices to treat life-damaging conditions of the heart, brain, lungs, and body systems, diminishing the need for invasive surgeries and reducing recovery time. Along the way his inventions have also reduced risk, trauma, and cost and improved the quality of life.
Mr. Abele received his bachelor’s degree in physics and philosophy from Amherst College, Class of 1959. He found his passion for novel technology development in 1960 when he began working as a sales engineer with a small medical company that developed and marketed unique laboratory instruments and selling some of the first pacemakers.
After helping start Medi-tech in 1969 using catheters to develop alternatives to traditional surgery, Mr. Abele co-founded Boston Scientific in 1979 with Peter Nicholas to acquire Medi-tech and significantly expand this vision. The goal was to bring accessible and non-invasive medical options to market, and with a business plan that included winning the support of physicians and others in the medical community to shift a very resistant culture towards less invasive therapies. Working with many different medical specialties, they helped evolve the live demonstration course, a powerful new educational system that improved collaboration and both accelerated and improved the competence of the early practitioners of these counterintuitive new techniques.
One of the most well-known of those techniques involves treatments for heart disease such as the angioplasty dilation balloon and stent. Today, Boston Scientific offers more than 13,000 products affecting the health and lives of over 26 million people each year across more than 100 countries. Their innovations have revolutionized how technology interfaces with medicine to benefit patients and public health.
A self-described non-linear or “eco” thinker, Mr. Abele traces the origin of his thinking to his three years as a child spent in and out of a body cast recovering from osteomyelitis. Since retiring from Boston Scientific in 2005, he has devoted himself to a second career as a philanthropist, venture capitalist, and professional tinkerer. His major interests include science literacy for children, environmental sustainability and alternative energy, education, and the process by which new technology is invented, developed, and introduced to society. Through the Argosy Foundation, which he founded in 1997, Mr. Abele and his family have given well over $100 million in grants to nonprofits working across a spectrum of challenges and opportunities in our communities and the environment. The foundation encourages cross-disciplinary collaboration, reflecting Mr. Abele’s lifelong interest in helping groups of people to become “collectively intelligent.”
While the Argosy Foundation is eclectic in its grantmaking, a few projects receive favorite status. One of those is FIRST, the nonprofit founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen. FIRST is known worldwide for its fun and inventive programs for kids from kindergarten to high school—including FIRST Tech Challenge, FIRST Robotics Competition, and FIRST Lego League—that introduce children as young as six years old to science and engineering thinking through exciting and collaborative play and problem solving.
Not only is Mr. Abele a committed donor to FIRST, he served as chairman for 8 years and now serves as vice chair of the board. Promoting the benefits of K–12 project-based learning outside the classroom—benefits for the students and the state—Mr. Abele was instrumental in encouraging UVM to take the lead in hosting the FIRST Tech Challenge in Vermont, in 2013. Vermont now enters teams from across the state to national FIRST Tech Challenges, fielding eight teams this year from eight different schools. Mr. Abele is also a founder and primary supporter of the Champlain Mini Maker Faire. Now in its sixth year, the Champlain Mini Maker Faire has spurred similar events around the state, exposing students and adults alike to the excitement and possibilities within the STEM fields.
Another current project, at the confluence of technology and cooperation, is the Kingbridge Conference Center and Institute. The retreat center outside Toronto for educators, scientists, and corporate leaders endeavors to dissolve barriers to effective collaboration and develop improved methods for interactive learning and conferencing. The for-profit Kingbridge Center is self-sustaining, underscoring a guiding mission to create “change-the-world” businesses. Further proof of this commitment are Mr. Abele’s investments in a “sniffer” device that can identify infections in plants or humans, an educational technology startup helping teachers and students to interact online, and a medical device using magnetics to treat depression—to name a few.
Mr. Abele serves the University of Vermont as an advisory board member to the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. He has received numerous awards throughout his career in recognition of his visionary innovations, his leadership, and his achievements. Among those are the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Gold Medal Award, the society’s highest award for eminently distinguished engineering achievement; the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation Leadership and Achievement Award; the Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons Pioneer in Endoscopy Award; and honorary degrees from four other colleges and universities.
Inventor, provocateur, businessman, philanthropist—John Abele’s dedication to advancing humanity through creative collaboration, disruptive direction, and spirited exchange knows no bounds. His visionary and ecological approach to ideating and problem solving is profoundly shaping next-generation possibilities in health care, technology, education, climate remediation, and collective human connection.