By Elisabeth Román
When people tell Manuel A. Villafaña, “It can’t be done, there is no way that will work, we don’t have enough money,” he smiles, and with faith in God the successful inventor sets out to achieve his goals. When he was growing up in the crime ridden neighborhood of the Bronx in New York City, dodging through alleys and backstreets to avoid the gangs, no one ever imagined he would one day become one of the greatest inventors the world of cardiovascular medicine has ever seen.
Even now, few in the Hispanic community know that the co-developer of the artificial heart valve is a Puerto Rican: his father was born in Morovis, Puerto Rico, and his mother was a native of Santurce, a neighbohood of San Juan. Yet, the graduate of Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx is well-known in academic, business, and medical circles worldwide. Manny, as everyone calls him, is currently on his way to establishing his seventh start-up company for his latest medical-device invention.
A pioneer of Minnesota’s medical industry, he has established several companies in the state. His inventions and contributions have been credited with creating Minnesota’s “medical alley,” where healthcare is the No. 1 industry. And he did it all with just a high school education.
Although Manny doesn’t have a college degree, thanks to decades of hands-on experience and research, he knows more about pacemakers and heart valves than doctors or possibly anyone in the world.
Villafaña designed the long-life pacemaker, taking it from a lifespan of 18 months at the most, to last more than 30 years. He is also the founder of St. Jude Medical, where he co-invented the St. Jude artificial heart valve. In addition to hard work, Manny credits his highly devout Catholic mother, who instilled the faith in him at an early age, as well as the priests and religious brothers at Cardinal Hayes for inspiring him to succeed. For Villafaña nothing seems impossible when it comes to healing the heart.
As with most entrepreneurs, things have not always been easy. Before starting up his first company, Villafaña was struggling with few supporters and little attention. He ended up in church one day and found a novena to St. Jude (the patron saint of desperate causes) in the pew. He prayed the novena and went on to establish his first medical device company. When he established his second company, Manny called it St. Jude Medical in honor of the saint he also turned to when his son was born extremely ill. Villafaña’s son recovered and was named Jude.
Despite his tremendous success Manny hasn’t forgotten his humble beginnings and remains actively involved with the community, dedicating time to the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club of New York and other charitable organizations. He is also remains faithful to St. Jude.