Behind Wood’s public face

HIGH-PROFILE surgeon Fiona Wood admits that she was not an instant convert to the world of business.

Even though she lives in a whirlwind that would easily compare to the life of a major league CEO, and talks about running a team just as any charismatic corporate leader would, the well-known doctor said she is most at home in Western Australia’s public hospital system.

It was through that system that Dr Wood rose to public prominence last year as the head of Royal Perth Hospital’s surgical team dealing with victims of the Bali bombing.

But long before the tragic circumstances of terrorism put her in the public eye, Dr Wood had recognised that her work, and therefore burns patients, could benefit from private sector funding.

Started with funding from Telethon in 1993, Clinical Cell Culture, or C3 as it is branded, is the commercial incarnation of a research project to create spray-on skin to help heal burns victims.

These days it is one of the major elements of Dr Wood’s average day – the rest being her work in public and private practice, and family.

“C3 has been a very positive thing,” she said.

The technology helps reduce the time needed to produce new skin and treat a burns victim – something increased recognition outside WA helped drive, providing a commercial solution that soothed Dr Wood’s discomfort at working outside the hospital system.

“We were getting requests from interstate and overseas,” she said.

“We realised we could do a controlled commercialisation that would benefit all parties.”

To make sure the technology remained accessible the intellectual property was housed in a not-for-profit research group, the McComb Foundation, which sits between the public hospital system, where the research was undertaken, and C3, which is the commercial arm.

Dr Wood said that, from the beginning, the arrangement was for the technology to be used on a not-for-profit basis for the burns unit’s work in WA.

“That ensures I don’t have a conflict of interest and rewards the hospital,” she said.

Over time Dr Wood hopes to expand the not-for-profit work. For instance, severe burns victims from poor countries will be treated in WA from the end of this month under one new program – as the commercial side of the business, C3, helps generate new funds.

“C3 is now on a very good platform for expansion and introducing the technology globally,” Dr Wood said. “Like anything small it has been necessary to nurture it.”

Dr Wood said she has had tremendous support from the public hospitals, particularly Royal Perth and Princess Margaret.

She is also thankful for the board members who oversee the commercial side of her work at C3 – C3's co-founder and current chief scientific officer Marie Stoner, C3's current executive director and a former chief investment officer from C3's major shareholder ECAT Development Capital Philip Rees, accountant Dalton Gooding, lawyer Paul Fletcher and funds management executive Peter Constable.

“I am the visionary, but to make it happen it is not a one-man band,” Dr Wood said.

“You can do a lot on your own but you can do a lot more with the right people around you.”

This is a theme that belongs not just within the commercial side of Dr Wood’s prolific career, but right at the heart of her key role as a surgeon specialising in burns.

As only an English migrant would, she slips in a soccer analogy to underscore this point.

“You have to have a leader but there is no point in being a leader without a team,” Dr Wood said.

“{English captain} David Beckham on the pitch on his own might score the odd goal, but that is it.”

Dr Wood heads a team of 50-60 people at Royal Perth, with that number increasing to about 200 at the height of the influx of patients from Bali.

This is the key team that Dr Wood must motivate on a day-to-day basis – the ones she admits “make me look good” with the work they do after she walks out of the operating theatre.

Leadership, Dr Wood said, is common sense.

More bluntly, she believes that the best leaders master the art of manipulation, enabling them to get others to do what they need done.

“Maybe moulding, inspiring and nurturing are nicer ways of putting it, but it is manipulation, isn’t it,” Dr Wood said.

For her part, she is conscious that good leaders must also be introspective at times.

“Sometimes you are so busy you don’t realise what it is you have to do,” Dr Wood said.

“Sometimes that means it takes you longer to realise what the next step is.

“I have got busier and busier, and I am trying to reappraise my work-load.”

That means teaching others to do tasks that can be delegated.

“I could do what I do better if I had more time. It is not more time for myself, it is about being able to give more time to what I do best,” she said.

And what she does best is pretty clear, at least now it is, although Dr Wood concedes it was not always obvious just how good the techniques her team was developing actually were.

In fact, after beavering away in WA’s isolation, it took a trip to a world skin conference in Zurich about six years ago to open her eyes to the potential of the research.

“They were talking about fast skin in 14 days and we were doing seven days or less,” she said.

“We just assumed what we were doing was the same as everyone else, not something different.”

Far from being concerned about WA’s isolation, she believes there are real positives for someone in her field.

Firstly, the concentration of the population in Perth means that she can easily track the results of surgery on burns victims through what she considers is still a great hospital system.

And there’s the other reason, the one of which many of us – whether we are WA natives or chose to move here, as Dr Wood did – are convinced.

“This is a great lifestyle,” she said.

“You can work like a dog and still enjoy yourself.”


p          Dr Wood will speak on May 15 as part of WA Business News’ Success and Leadership series.

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