Hearts and Minds

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Manny Villafana has achieved success far beyond the dreams of “a kid from the Bronx,” as he describes himself. The seeds of his success can be found in the lessons of his youth: hard work, self-reliance, and the value of education.

Education took center stage at the College of Engineering commencement on May 17, when Villafana received an Honorary Doctor of Science degree to recognize his contributions to biomedical device development, biomedical engineering, civic leadership, and student success.

“We had no money in my family and very little schooling,” Villafana says. “I went to a great high school, but I had to pay my way and learn things on my own. So I’ve always been an advocate for education. This honorary degree from the University of Iowa is a super big deal to me.”

A serial entrepreneur, Villafana has founded several companies whose products have revolutionized the medical device industry. They include Cardiac Pacemakers Inc., which introduced the long-life lithium iodine pacemaker, and St. Jude Medical, which introduced the bileaflet mechanical heart valve. In 2007, Villafana launched Kips Bay Medical — his seventh IPO — which develops alloy mesh technology for use in coronary artery bypass surgery.

How did a kid from the Bronx find his way to Iowa?

Credit Professor K. B. Chandran. “K. B. was interested in studying the fluid dynamics of the St. Jude valve, and we began working together in 1976,” Villafana recalls. “He was very instrumental in demonstrating the superior dynamics of the St. Jude valve to the rest of the world.”

Villafana’s ties to the College of Engineering strengthened when he met his wife, Elizabeth, a UI Tippie College of Business graduate and daughter of a UI engineering alumnus. When the couple married, rather than a traditional wedding gift, Villafana chose to honor Elizabeth’s late father, creating the Howard J. Elder Computing Lab in the College of Engineering. Villafana has continued his generous philanthropic support for the college, and also enjoys working with students in the UI ’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center.

His early collaboration with UI biomedical faculty members continues today. “I’m working now with Professor Raghavan on bypass grafting. It’s a really exciting project, and it’s typical of what I’ve found at Iowa over the years,” Villafana says. “People here are consistently collaborative and successful. Working together, the College of Engineering and the University’s medical center have created a wonderful breeding ground for innovation.”