A Forum on Failure Stirs One-Liners and Personal Anguish Among CEOs

11/20/08Follow @bvbigelow

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 to Palo Alto, CA, and eventually was acquired in 2005 for $10 million by Oregon’s Tut Systems.

“In hindsight, you see it all,” Shaw says. “But you don’t see it in real time. And as an entrepreneur you tend to believe that you can still pull the rabbit out of that hat.”

When Senturia asked, “How do you handle greed versus rational behavior at the board level?” Kalb lamented, “it was beyond my earthly understanding” when the board of Continuous Computing rejected a $250 million buyout offer for the company.

“Selling companies is like hors d’oevres,” Senturia quipped. “When it comes around, take it.”

Nova related that she was a researcher in the early 1980s at Hybritech, which became a progenitor for San Diego’s biotech industry after the company was sold for roughly $500 million to Eli Lilly.

“It was a fast company,” Nova says. “We were a young company. We didn’t know anything… And when the company was purchased by Eli Lilly, it was like ‘Animal House’ meets ‘The Waltons.’ ”

Nova later joined another San Diego startup, Ligand Pharmaceuticals, and realized soon afterward that the biotech’s basic technology was a dead end. She said she had the unenviable job of telling Brook Byers, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, that the firm’s venture investment in Ligand was a mistake.

“I told Brook Byers, who is like a god, that this technology didn’t work,” Nova said. “He had just purchased oceanside property in Arizona.”

Instead of shutting the company down, however, Nova said she worked with other founders to start over with different technology, which they acquired from Ron Evans’ laboratory at the Salk Institute.

Summarizing her philosophy, Nova says she hates failure and hates to lose. “There is failure. There is personal failure. There is company failure. And then there is change.”

Ligand may have been founded on faulty technology, Nova says, but it wasn’t a failure. “To me it was change. It was about taking something that didn’t work and turning it into something that did.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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  • Tyler Orion

    Bruce-
    Thanks for capturing the spirit of the event. I think everyone in the audience left with a dose of reality despite being entertained. The willingness of the speakers to be candid and “tell one on themselves” was stunning and Neil was hilarious. It was the MIT Forum at it’s best. (Sorry I missed seeing you- good to see you’re still here covering our tech community!)

  • http://www.sitetuneups.com Steve Glass

    Very good article, captured the essence of this amazing event. I also appreciated the point that being an CEO of a start-up requires charisma and talent, leadership is a learned skill.

    A “well done” to Neil, this took a lot of dedication and work, and to his co-presenters for opening up as they did.

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