Building innovation through scientific entrepreneurship

by Hemai Parthasarathy, guest contributor

For much of my career, I paid little attention to the path from scientific discovery to technological innovation in society. As a neuroscientist, I focused my research on the basal ganglia, a collection of deep brain regions, which are affected in diseases ranging from Parkinson’s to schizophrenia.  It’s tricky to study them – to even know what questions to ask about them – because they don’t receive strong direct inputs from the world (as, for example, the visual system does), nor do they directly interact with the world (as, for example, the motor system does).  I studied how the basal ganglia were connected to form functional systems (e.g. visual-motor), and I hoped to discover organizational principles that would illuminate this “dark basement of the brain.”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

In papers and grant applications, I would, of course, mention the implications of my research for treating disease.  Even then, a (in my view) misplaced emphasis on “translational impact” was necessary to justify much of academic research.  But really, I knew absolutely nothing about the process of turning a scientific discovery into a useful technology and, frankly, I wasn’t very interested.  I wanted to understand how things worked and leave it to others (in “industry”, presumably) to mine the treasure trove of science for its applications.

Later, when I entered the world of “high impact” scientific publishing as an editor at Nature, I would publish papers which also touted the potential real-world impact of a discovery, usually in the final sentences of the discussion section.  A molecular crystal structure would promise new insight into drug development, an algorithm would be a step towards artificial intelligence and the future of computing. In most cases, the scientists who wrote these words were probably not planning to take the intervening steps themselves.

It’s only since we started Breakout Labs, that I have really thought deeply about those 
steps.  Many scientific breakthroughs are indeed created or adopted by existing commercial entities, but many require scientists with an entrepreneurial spirit and dedication to bring them forward.  We started Breakout Labs to help this modern breed of scientist-entrepreneur bring groundbreaking science out of the laboratory and into the economy, to change the world for the better.

Since then, I’ve had the enormous privilege of engaging with true Renaissance men and women, who have not only the capacity for deep scientific insight, but the drive and savvy to take on the challenges of building a company.  

When neuroscientist, Todd Huffman, with Megan Klimen, Matthew Goodman, and Cody Daniel, started 3Scan, they had a microscope that could automatically section and digitally reconstruct a mouse brain overnight.  An awesome technology, but who needed it most and who would pay for it?  Once they were able to answer that question, they were on their way to building a digital pathology business, which now includes 21 people and is raising a second round of funding from institutional investors.

When biomedical engineers, Nina Tandon and Sarindr Bhumiratana, understood the potential medical applications of their postdoctoral work on bone regeneration at Columbia University, they decided to start Epibone.  They are now navigating the world of technology licenses, convertible notes, and the FDA, while still conducting world-class science.

Hemai speaking on the TEDMED 2016 stage. (Photo: Sandy Huffaker)
Hemai speaking on the TEDMED 2016 stage. (Photo: Sandy Huffaker)

In the last five years, I’ve met and worked with an astonishing array of scientist-entrepreneurs. They range in age from 25 to 75. They were trained in disciplines ranging from nuclear physics to psychiatry. Many derive their motivation to solve problems based on personal experience.  Many are driven by the sheer awesomeness of their technology and a vision of the future based upon it.  

Despite this array of background and aspirations, they share the same struggles as they build their businesses.  They struggle to find not just money, but money that comes from investors and agencies who share and can support their vision.  They struggle to find talented people, to build and reward teams who will share their journey. They struggle with unexpected technical challenges that come with turning a serendipitous discovery into a repeatable, reliable product.

As part of Breakout Labs, they learn from each other, from us, and from our network.  And, as much as they learn from us, I am constantly learning from them just how packed that one paragraph in a grant application or paper about the “real-world implications” of a scientific discovery really is.

To learn more about Hemai’s work, watch her TEDMED 2015 talk: “How entrepreneurship can amplify scientific impact”.