MCW’s Clarke Wants to Build Critical Mass of Medical Entrepreneurs
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makes for a commercial product, it simply is, does it meet a market need? And that there’s a lot of very detailed, important, and task-oriented stuff which, may or may not be very interesting, has to be done to commercialize. I think, historically, any high-tech business struggles because their founders want to do what’s cool versus what’s necessary. Part of my role is to socialize with would-be entrepreneurs [and say] “this is what you’re going to have to do, or we’re going to have to find somebody to do it for you to run your company.”
X: Why is this a priority for MCW now?
BC: I think they’re capitalizing on the fact that they ended up with me here with 17 years of very senior expertise in industry. It’s rare for people to leave academia, go into industry, and come back into academia. I think [MCW president and CEO] John Raymond realizes that we’ve got to figure out a way to support our faculty, our researchers, our clinician scientists, in an era of decreasing NIH dollars. And [it’s also to] just generally increase the profile of the medical college. [Raymond] was the one who contacted me a year and a half ago. … He’s been incredibly supportive of this. It’s a good way to support faculty.
X: What do you see as your charge with this role?
BC: My job is really to help faculty figure out how they want to start companies. Fifteen years ago, you could have faculty with a good idea and maybe a molecule or a target, and they could get venture capital funding. That ain’t happening anywhere now.
X: Why not?
BC: Because there’s just not enough VC money anymore. People are [investing] later and later, and they have to de-risk their portfolios.
Part of starting faculty-led companies is to get enough information about whatever—the device, the diagnostic, the molecule—to de-risk it some so that you can get external funding and have a structure in place and have trained the faculty to be good enough business people that they’re considered a good bet for angel or VC money.
But ultimately [biotech has] to show a return on their investment or everybody else will move to something that has a more rapid return on investment. Some of that can be mitigated by really helping scientists understand how to focus the development of their idea to focus on the experiments that either kill the idea or move it along, and do that early. Do not get enchanted by the pure science, but by the [ability to develop] their idea.
X: Almost like applying lean startup methodology, so popular with tech startups, to biotech?
BC: That’s what it is. That’s why you see a lot of VC money going into [medical] devices because … up to now, the regulatory pathway for devices has been shorter and more clearly delineated.
But there’s a lot of mistakes made by early startups not knowing exactly what the path they have to walk is, be it a device, be it a diagnostic. And having somebody who can help them with that I think helps mightily.
X: MCW staff reported more than 40 discoveries and inventions in fiscal year 2013. In MCW’s history, technology developed by staff has resulted in more than 250 pending and issued patents worldwide, and more than 50 licensing agreements. Do you have any statistical goals or metrics for measuring your performance in this role?
BC: Not at the moment. I think the main thing is happy, successful faculty, and if, in some cases, there’s intellectual property, there’ll be a return to the medical college in dollars. But Dr. Raymond didn’t say I have to get so many dollars or so many happy faculty. We’re adults; we’ll figure it out together, [assessing] whether or not the position succeeds. If I’m helping faculty start companies and if 25 percent of those companies are successful … then we’re doing a good job.
X: What’s your long-term vision for this effort?
BC: We need to get some degree of a self-sustaining, entrepreneurial critical mass based around the medical college or around the medical college and some of its local partners. We’re never going to be at the same scale as [UW-Madison] is because together, the medical college and some of its local partners are not as big as UW. But I think we can get a critical mass of entrepreneurial biotech energy going here so that we get enough experienced scientists, chief science officers, CEOs, whatever the role is, so that it can begin to self-support. That’s a four, five, or six-year journey, I would say.