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brought in top-tier industry people to speak to all of the different financing challenges in the life sciences. That is a course we are going to expand this year into a full-semester course.
The next course was an intellectual property course, and it was taught by a top IP attorney from Fenwick & West named Michael Shuster. It was a very hands-on, experiential course and it got rave reviews.
We’re just about to gear up for “Idea to IPO,” our core entrepreneurship course that has been taught for a number of years. It’s led by Charlie Craik, a faculty member here, and Steve Burrill, the CEO of a major investing firm in the life sciences. They’ve been doing this course for a number of years, and people form teams and work on an idea which the end up pitching to a panel of investors. If people don’t have their own ideas, we will find some IP from our files and see if people are interested in working on that.
Something else that I’m excited about is that Steve Blank is going to be adapting his “Lean LaunchPad” course for the healthcare and life science world, and will start teaching that here in September.
X: Most startups spend a lot of time revising and rethinking their technology at the same time that they’re searching for a market. But I think universities sometimes have trouble commercializing their intellectual property because they see it as finished—they say “Here’s the technology, now just find us a market for it.” Do you think that’s changing?
SM: When you see an entrepreneurial idea in a classroom setting, say one of our entrepreneurship courses, it gets iterated. We send students out to talk to the marketplace, whatever that marketplace might be—it could be hospitals, it could be clinicians, it could be individual patients. There are lots of pivots that occur. So you try to get students to recognize that the technology is often a starting place, but you have to go out to the market to understand the value of that. You are not just sitting in a lab working on a technical concept without market feedback. So, I think we will be more effective in starting companies around technology once we have gone through that iterative market-facing process. At that point, does the technology need to mature to become what is needed by the market? Probably. But at least now there is a market focus.
X: Do you think Steve Blank’s methodology really works in the life science world? The reason it works so well in the information technology world is that if your product is just software, you can iterate relatively quickly and easily. That’s not so true in the life sciences.
SM: If anything, it’s especially important to apply the lean methodology in the life sciences, because the timelines are so much longer and you have invested so much more. You don’t want to get to the end and find out there wasn’t a demand. There are so many places to take your concept and test it out and see if it’s going to play in the marketplace. For example, if you have something that needs to be adopted by hospital purchasing, you have to sell not just to purchasing departments but to the thought leaders in the medical world who are going to champion you.
X: Will there be a physical place for the center on campus?
SM: I would love to have a center for the center. I think space is important. I started an entrepreneurship club to create an at least occasional salon where people can make connections. I would love to have a permanent salon where people could just drop in and network. That is going to require some funding, so I think we are going to have to initiate a development process. The intent is to find sponsorship—people who are interested in this world and would like to engage with the ecosystems. We expect that funding sources will want to participate to access this rich environment. We are currently bootstrapping like any startup and will demonstrate value that attracts sponsorships.
X: What’s the best way for people to initiate contact with the center?
SM: We have a website, which is under revision. We have mailing lists that we’re happy to add people to. I’m open and available to take phone calls and meetings. I’m here to help anyone who is interested in this agenda.
X: Do you ever look at Silicon Valley and feel a twinge of envy and think, wow, why, why is it so much harder to bring new things to market in the healthcare business? Why are there so few venture firms interested in life sciences anymore?
SM: The risks are higher and the time to reward is longer, but if you think about the bigger picture, which is how you can have an impact on society, building another app isn’t the answer. That’s why those of us in the life science world choose to be here—because what we do matters.
At the Life Science Angels event last night, Allan May said venture is dead for early stage life science ventures, and he listed a whole bunch of things that are being tried to fill in that space. We don’t have the new model completely figured out, but there are new entities playing, like foundations and consortia of pharmaceutical companies. Angel groups have picked up a lot of the slack.
And yes, it’s a tough game and success is not guaranteed, but we are trying to get people to set more modest goals, to accomplish more on less funding, and to provide their concepts to the point where their venture will be interesting to new financing sources or to a device or pharmaceutical company, which badly need new drugs in the pipeline. What these ventures need to be thinking about is how can they do the smallest possible proof of concept, because once you have that, pharma is going to look at you.
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