By Peter Roberts
It was back in the 1980s in Sydney that I met an obscure professor of biomedical engineering from the University of New South Wales, Peter Farrell (pictured).
He had most recently headed the Baxter Center for Medical Research in Australia and even then you could tell he was destined for something big – something which created a whole strand of medicine and demonstrated that global start ups could be founded and prosper from an Australian base.
Farrell always exuded an energy and optimism, and a knack for networking that was to set him in good stead when he took the company global.
He later – I nearly said he exploited – but it is fairer to say he worked with people he had met to help make his business a success – Farrell made sure he clicked with people he met, including young Australian Financial Review journalists such as myself, but he would never ask for a favour.
Farrell’s big break came when the global Baxter company downsized its Australian research, and he ended up picking up an unwanted piece of science – the idea that posture during sleep could obstruct the airways and cause all sorts of deleterious health effects.
Farrell founded the ResMed sleep apnoea business in 1989, and I remember clearly his ambition to create a billion dollar business, following in the footsteps of Cochlear that had been established six years before.
Well ResMed, now based in the US has just issued its latest fourth quarter 2023 highlights – these showed the company’s revenues up 23 percent to US$1.1 billion and up 23 percent on a constant currency basis.
That’s more than a billion US a quarter.
Of course there were huge struggles along the way to this success.
The ResMed technology is deceptively simple – Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), a sort of reverse vacuum cleaner, keeps the airways open during the night.
But in fact there was and is constant innovation in ResMed covering things such as the fit and wearability of the mask and the maintenance of humidity in the airflow. Today innovation might be around updating device technology via the cloud.
Even more important was the task of persuading the global medical profession that sleep apnoea actually was a problem, and a problem that could be fixed – something he achieved by dogged support for medical thought leaders internationally.
Then there was the financing from start up to US float – something where his networking abilities and time working and studying in US universities came to the fore.
But just as Cochlear’s success can be sheeted home to Paul Trainor the enterpeneur who created the company, so too can ResMed’s with Peter Farrell, who today is chair emeritus of ResMed – his son Mick leads the company today.
While I am reminiscing I recall Farrell at one stage driving me home after a factory visit at ResMed’s campus in north west Sydney.
He was excited to show off his new four door Maserati though he complained that the first two he had picked up from the dealer had failed to operate after a very short time.
At an apartment he used to keep in George Street, Sydney, he was equally excited to show off his art collection, including as I recall, an exquisite Van Diemen’s Land scene by colonial artist John Glover.
Here, I thought, is a man proud of his success.
And there have been few Australians in the technology industry space who have in recent times deserved that success more than Peter Farrell.
Picture: Peter Farrell