For an electrical engineer in the medical device world, Eric Soederberg’s role models aren’t entirely—well—expected. “Oh, Gandhi, probably,” says Soederberg, with a self-effacing laugh. He falls silent for a moment, tousling his auburn hair. “Although, lately I’ve been asking myself, ‘What would Fred Rogers do?’” he adds, drumming his fingers on the table.
How did a gearhead graduate of both WPI and MIT find inspiration in such humanistic heroes? The path may have started decades ago on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue, where a 20-something Soederberg walked frequently, admiring the memorials and statues that line the historic greenway. One in particular captured his imagination: that of sailor and historian Samuel Eliot Morison, whose statue bears the inscription, “Dream dreams, then write them. Aye, but live them first.”
Thirty years have passed since Soederberg first read those words, and he now stands at the helm of Sunrise Labs, a medical product development company whose innovations are both changing and saving lives. And after years of dreaming his dreams, he’s discovered that the impact he wants to have on the world isn’t limited to the things he makes, but also in how he treats the people with whom he makes them.
Signs of Soederberg’s future as an engineer came at a young age—three years young, to be exact. “My mom couldn’t get the vacuum cleaner to work, and I managed to fix it in a couple of seconds,” he’s been told. Other early triumphs included building intercom systems from scratch and bugging his sisters’ rooms, a feat he still recalls with relish. But it wasn’t until he earned his amateur radio license in his early-teens that Soederberg got serious about engineering as an academic discipline. “I learned a lot about electronics while studying for that ham radio license. They had all these study guides, and that’s where I learned Ohm’s Law,” he says. “I also learned that I wasn’t very interested in just sitting there talking to people; I wanted to be in the basement soldering and building the radio. I was a nerd before it was cool.”
And so began Soederberg’s great passion for all things technical. In fact, to hear him tell it, he was headed for a perilously solitary life of transmitters and Morse code, until he discovered wrestling in high school, a sport that opened him to the rich complexities of socializing … albeit in doses. “You’re the only one out on the mat at the moment, but you’re still on a team, and it was a way for me to see a little more of the world.”
In addition to illustrating that he could thrive in a team atmosphere, wrestling also laid the groundwork for a future in the competitive world of product development. “That sport taught me that, winning matters,” he says. “You don’t want to be the second-best guy for the job; you want to be the best guy for the job. It definitely gave me a competitive spirit.”
The sport also opened the door to his future alma mater, WPI. After visiting campus on the urging of WPI’s then wrestling coach, Phil Grebinar, Soederberg saw that the school might be a perfect fit for his aspirations. “When it came right down to it, I knew I was going to be an engineer, and at WPI I could take a class specifically in circuits and really learn how to use Ohm’s Law—it was all just manna from heaven,” he recalls. “The WPI Plan gave me the chance to study what I wanted to study and build my own curriculum. As a result, I left with more than just a degree in electrical engineering. I had a passion for it, too.”
After graduation, Soederberg put his engineering theory to practice at a series of electronics firms, though two jobs would prove pivotal in building the socially conscious entrepreneur he is today: that of a production supervisor at Motorola and a project manager at DEKA Research and Development.
The mobile phone industry was set to explode in 1992, and fresh out of MIT’s Leaders for Manufacturing Program with new operations and engineering skills, Soederberg was looking for a challenge. He got it, and learned the importance of strong values and a people-centered culture along the way. “In those days, Motorola was a principles-driven organization,” he says, “and that’s where I learned the two core values that I’ve preached ever since: uncompromised integrity and constant respect for people.”
Although he was well on his way to becoming a leader in his field, he was dreaming dreams … but not yet living them.
And then the phone rang. An old school colleague feverishly recounted two new projects his firm had in the pipeline, projects so secret they were referred to by their code names, “Fred” and “Ginger.” He had hopes that Soederberg would consider joining the team. “Eric,” he pleaded, “it’s going to change the world.” That’s all Soederberg needed to hear. The answer was yes.
For several years in the late ’90s, engineer Dean Kamen ’73 and his team at DEKA Research and Development worked quietly on a revolutionary technology he called dynamic stabilization, ultimately leading to two groundbreaking projects that put the innovation to work.
The first, Ginger, was a two-wheeled transportation device the world would come to know as the Segway. Kamen’s second project, Fred, produced a wheelchair that allowed users to stand on two wheels, greet others at eye level, and navigate stairs and uncertain terrain in four-wheel drive.
Soederberg led the ‘Fred’ team, bringing the iBot to market, and the effect the device had on people’s lives proved staggering. “We’d see grown men who would put this thing in balance-mode and dance with their wives in tears,” he remembers. “We heard about people who hadn’t been in their backyard for years, or had never even seen their basement. That really helped me see that this medical stuff could be pretty cool.” He discovered that, as much as technical challenges got his blood pumping, he was even more rewarded in building devices that directly improved the lives of those who used them.
Riding high on his success with Kamen and his team—and having found a new focus in medical innovations—Soederberg needed the opportunity to lead, and not just at the project level, but as a company’s primary decision maker. He found that chance at Sunrise Labs, a small product-development firm in southern New Hampshire where he could leverage his two passions: medical innovation and principled leadership. Brought on as a manager in 2008, he was soon offered an ownership stake by founder Drew Sunstein, and was appointed president and CEO in 2015. He now had a sandbox in which to test his theories—of products and people alike.
Among his first moves at Sunrise, Soederberg dramatically altered a culture that had begun to lean toward scarcity. “When an employee asks me if they can buy something, I just say ‘yes’ whenever possible. What that says is, ‘I trust and respect you,’” he explains. “If you’re asking people to come up with new ideas, you really have to support them.”
Sunrise Labs’ values-driven culture doesn’t stop with expenditures. Soederberg is a strong proponent of an interpersonal approach he calls “assumption of positive intent.” As anyone who has experienced office culture will attest, a single poorly worded email can wreak havoc on trust and collegiality. Soederberg argues that a reset is possible, if we check our assumptions before acting. “When someone in the company does something that makes me think, ‘What the heck were they thinking?’ I try to start by assuming positive intent, because I absolutely believe that everyone at Sunrise is out for the best interest of Sunrise and our clients,” he says. “If that’s the case, I simply need to talk with them, because usually I find my assumptions were just plain wrong.”
A people-first culture does more than just boost morale and employee retention, argues Soederberg; it also makes for confident decision making. “When we’re faced with a tough decision and wondering what to do, it’s much easier to say, ‘Well, we’re going to do the right thing.’ Then we just have to decide together what the right thing to do is, based on our values. And because we’re privately held, we can do that.”
Laurin Noel, vice president of business development at Sunrise Labs, stresses that Soederberg’s values earn more than mere lip service from his staff. “It’s just not a blame-based environment where people’s first question is, ‘OK, who screwed up?’” she says. “Assuming positive intent is definitely a part of that, and for Eric, that’s also how he wants to live his life.”
When pressed for why he places such heavy emphasis on company culture, Soederberg’s answer is both emotional and pragmatic. “I want to look forward to going to work every day, and I want my people to as well,” he explains. However, he resists the suggestion that his motivations are exclusively altruistic. “I’m a pragmatist,” he counters. “Not acting toward people with a high-integrity model is just short-term thinking. For example, when a contractor comes to do work at my house, instead of trying to talk him down on the price, I say, ‘Be sure to treat yourself fairly.’ And guess what—then he treats me fairly! It just makes sense.”
Perhaps Soederberg’s greatest feat lies in building a company around principles and values—that has never lost its competitive edge. Last year, Business NH Magazine named Sunrise Labs among the top places to work in New Hampshire, and the New Hampshire Tech Alliance dubbed Soederberg its Entrepreneur of the Year. He’s proud of these accolades, but is quick to point out their practical value in retaining good talent. “A lot of our engineers stay with us for our culture. A few years ago we had an engineer leave to take a position closer to home and with higher pay,” he says. “He came back to us in a week.”
And what does the 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year see for the future of Sunrise Labs? Growth, but not for growth’s sake. “When an entrepreneur or a company comes to us looking to develop projects that change people’s lives, it’s hard to say no,” he says. “We’re in it for the long run; we’re not looking to make a killing and get out.”
Soederberg admits that a great culture is only as good as the work it produces, and he comes alive when showing off a prototype for an on-demand dry plasma manufacturing system his team recently developed with Velico Medical. By spray-drying blood plasma, the device creates a point-of-care plasma product for transfusion which can be stored for long periods of time. It simplifies logistics and is reconstituted in under five minutes.
“Frozen plasma is just not an option for pre-hospital care. You just add water!” he ex-claims. “This allows a combat medic or civilian first responder to infuse blood plasma right in the field, which is going to save a lot of lives.”
Soederberg moves on to a show-and-tell of another product developed with SynCardia Systems, an artificial heart driver for patients waiting on a permanent transplant. Worn as a backpack, it’s pneumatically tethered to an artificial heart within the body—failure of this device can be catastrophic. Soederberg and his team worked with their client to develop an improved driver that is lightweight, highly reliable, and nearly silent, a requirement they satisfied by inventing new seal technology and advanced motor controls.
“The stories coming from this device are wonderful,” says Soederberg. “We’re hearing about patients going to the library or movies—places they couldn’t go before because it was too noisy.”
Developing life-saving products for the medical field may be the primary way Soederberg gives back, but he’s as true to his values outside the office as he is in. After becoming aware of the wide-spread issue of teenagers suffering from anxiety and depression, Soederberg is working to bring an emotional resilience training program called IHEART [Innate Health Education and Resilience Training], currently thriving in British public schools, to his local school system in Bedford, N.H.
Recently, Soederberg met with several other business leaders and MIT alums to discuss how they might help frame climate change in a way that politicians on both sides of the aisle could embrace. “Putting solar panels on our roofs isn’t going to have enough impact,” he says. “We need policy changes, and having a rational business voice in the room helps politicians recognize that this is not strictly a left-wing, Greenpeace kind of issue.”
In all of his philanthropic endeavors, the through line is clear: when it’s within his power to say yes, Soederberg finds it unconscionable to say no. “We spend so much time grousing about the state of the world, when you see an area where you can have an impact, you’ve got to do it,” he says. “Also, engineers thrive on building things to make the world a better place.” [ J ]