MCW’s Clarke Wants to Build Critical Mass of Medical Entrepreneurs

5/6/14Follow @XconomyWI

For academic researchers trying to turn an idea into a business, it’s easy to get caught up in the discovery’s “cool” factor and overlook the fact that it needs to be something people will pay money for.

As the Medical College of Wisconsin’s newly named director of research commercialization, Bill Clarke knows this dynamic well. He has more than 20 years of experience in academia, clinical practice, and in the life sciences industry. In his new role at MCW, he says he won’t be shy about telling physicians and researchers that their idea is interesting but that it simply won’t translate as a business, or that it’s a great idea, and here’s the game plan for getting it to market.

Clarke has earned the street cred to make those judgments and understands the steps it takes to achieve commercial success, he says. He led R&D efforts for Amersham Health, which was later acquired by GE Healthcare, which named him executive vice president and chief medical officer in 2004. Several molecular imaging products he helped develop at Amersham have since received FDA approval under GE Healthcare, he added.

Clarke joined MCW nearly four years ago, where he serves as associate professor of anesthesiology and pediatrics and he’s also a pediatric anesthesiologist at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. MCW, based in Wauwatosa on Milwaukee’s western border, is one of two medical schools in Wisconsin. The other is the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in the state capital of Madison.

Prior to MCW, Clarke was president and CEO of the Madison-based pharmaceutical company Cellectar. He has also served as GlaxoWellcome UK’s director of biological sciences and disease science, and held faculty positions at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Washington.

He has been quietly helping MCW’s research commercialization efforts for about a year, but the newly created position wasn’t made official until April. In his new role, Clarke will collaborate with the Office of Technology Development, which manages MCW’s intellectual property. Clarke will continue practicing at Children’s Hospital three or four days a week, while performing the research commercialization duties roughly one day per week.

Clarke says his goal is not so much to focus on boosting MCW commercialization statistics as to provide support for faculty researchers, foster a self-sustaining entrepreneurial climate, and help mold promising ideas so that they’ll pass muster with investors.

Xconomy recently sat down to chat with Clarke. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Xconomy: What’s your assessment of MCW staff’s potential for commercializing research?

Bill Clarke: There’s a lot of really smart scientists here, and there just hasn’t been the focus on commercialization that there has been at the University of Wisconsin, with all the horsepower of [the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation] and what WARF can bring. And the entrepreneurial environment in Madison is pretty conducive to people going out and finding people who have been entrepreneurial in healthcare and getting the advice they need.

We’ve got one company that’s already formed and is to be announced some time soon. …What I bring to these people is a deep understanding of how to commercialize stuff. And I’m not shy about telling somebody: “This’ll never turn into a product; there’s just no way,” but also being able to say to people, “this is a great idea but it really needs to be directed this way” or “this is just a great idea; let me help you with that.”

Learning how to commercialize, particularly something that has to go through a regulatory pathway, is extremely complicated, and I can’t do all of it by myself. But I understand it, having run a global R&D operation, so that I can get people over the major hurdles and find, if necessary, the consultants they need.

X: What’s your biggest piece of advice to someone thinking about commercializing an idea?

BC: I think the hardest thing for any scientist who has an idea that they think is [able to be commercialized] is to understand that, unlike in academia, it’s not the quality of the science or the coolness of the science that … Next Page »

Jeff Engel is the editor of Xconomy Wisconsin. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @XconomyWI

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