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 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.