Friendships helped biotech engineer rise to the top

In January, the University of Washington’s Department of Bioengineering gave its first-ever Volunteer Service Award. The recipient was Everett’s Joe Eichinger, whose pioneering career was spent not as an academic, but as a brilliant entrepreneur.

“Joe’s strength, he was the consummate networker. He was one person away from anybody you’d want to meet,” said Doug Hansmann, who in the 1990s co-founded Ekos with Eichinger. The Bothell company developed technology to treat blood clots using ultrasound.

“He had the technical training, but very few technical people can step out beyond their technical training and cross boundaries,” Hansmann said. In bioengineering, expertise is needed in software, biology, mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as business. “He was the bridge between all of them,” Hansmann said.

Joseph Edward Eichinger died March 8 at his Everett home after a three-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 65. He is survived by Mary Eichinger, his wife of 19 years, and sons Joey, 18, and Luke, 17, both students at Archbishop Murphy High School.

“He was a great dad. He loved those boys,” said Mary Eichinger. Her husband was in his late 40s when their sons were born. “He had a busy schedule, but helped with Scouts and Little League. He definitely found balance.”

Born in Chicago and raised in the city’s suburbs, Eichinger earned a mechanical engineering degree in 1967 from Kettering University. He came to Seattle in 1969 to work for Honeywell.

Mary Eichinger said friends were amused to see at a reception after her husband’s memorial a ribbon holding all his business cards. “It stretched around the table, there were 17 different companies,” she said.

Those companies, all in the medical device industry, included Advanced Technology Labs, now Phillips Laboratories in Bothell; Neopath; Ekos; Therus; AcousTx and CoAptus.

“What Joe really liked was the conception of an idea,” Mary Eichinger said.

“Technology would come out of UW. He’d do research to see if there was a market, find a couple engineers and put a team together. By the time a company had 15 employees, he’d say ‘It’s too big for me.’ He’d start at the beginning again,” she said.

When he died, Eichinger was chief executive and president of CoAptus, a company developing a product to close holes in the heart.

Eichinger’s partner in CoAptus was David Auth, who met his future colleague when Auth joined Advanced Technology Labs in 1982. Auth had been a UW engineering professor, and Eichinger in 1976 was the 13th employee in the startup ultrasound company ATL.

“He was very much a people-oriented person,” Auth said. “He’d get people to meet each other, to join arms on a mutual quest and make something happen.”

At the UW, Paul Yager is chairman of the Department of Bioengineering, which honored Eichinger Jan. 27 with its Volunteer Service Award. “His advancement of our technologies to commercialization, creation of jobs for our students, and his work to advocate for a better relationship between UW and the business community have all been critical in the last 30 years for Seattle and for bioengineering,” Yager said at the January event.

On Friday, Yager said Eichinger spent many hours serving on an advisory board looking into bioengineering proposals for funding from a private foundation. “He came to meeting after meeting,” said Yager, who called Eichinger’s knowledge “completely encyclopedic.”

He rarely watched TV, and much of his leisure reading was patents, inches thick.

“He knew everybody. He’d say, ‘We tried that 15 years ago’ or ‘So-and-so holds the patent.’ He was harsh but fair, and wonderfully supportive of the university,” Yager said.

Dr. Julie Furby isn’t an engineer, she’s a dentist. The San Diego woman is also Eichinger’s niece. “He was quite a bit younger than my dad,” said Furby, who remembers Eichinger as “the cool uncle.”

Before Eichinger was married and had his own family, he would visit her family. “He was such a fun uncle, he’d visit all the time and send us really odd gifts. We treasured them,” she said. “If anything came in the mail, we’d recognize his perfect engineering penmanship.”

Mary Eichinger, too, has a funny keepsake. Her husband in his younger days kept little black books but not with names and phone numbers. Every time he put gas in his car he wrote down the mileage, the date and the price of gas. “He was meticulous,” she said.

He was also humble and down-to-earth, Mary Eichinger said. Friends they met through their sons’ school or sports knew him as one of the dads.

“I think they had no idea what he did,” she said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460,

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