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”.

“Think Big”: Q&A with Eric Chen

At TEDMED 2014, Eric Chen urged us to think big and never stop asking questions. Halfway through a very exciting first semester at Harvard, Eric Chen checked in with TEDMED to answer a few questions we had about his talk.

What motivated you to tell your story on the TEDMED stage?

I see huge untapped potential in kids and nonscientists all over the world, especially in this day and age when the Internet has given all of us so many resources unavailable in the past. However, so many people seem to be intimidated by scientists and the idea of research—they don’t believe they can do something so seemingly complex or sophisticated. I saw the TEDMED stage as a platform from which I could share my story and let them know about their own potential.

Eric Chen takes the stage at TEDMED 2014. - Jerod Harris
Eric Chen takes the stage at TEDMED 2014. – Jerod Harris

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

In today’s age, we will need more and more scientists and innovators to tackle the challenges on the horizon—from pollution to overpopulation. To solve these daunting problems, we will need bold, daring thinkers not afraid to ask the unasked question. It is important that everyone knows they can contribute, regardless of their background or situation, and that a groundbreaking discovery can be just a question away.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

I hope that my message can encourage more youth and nonscientists to think big, and to participate in science, research, and medicine. I would like to help spread the democratization of knowledge, science, and medicine.

Taking Eric’s advice, we didn’t stop asking questions there.  In the spirit of curiosity, we tacked on a few fun questions for your enjoyment:

If you could meet your 10-year-old self, what would you tell him?

I would tell him that I now know how to time travel, and then go collect my Nobel Prize.

If you were immortal for a day, what would you do?

I would completely wreck the world record for most time with breath held underwater.

If you could meet anyone, living or dead, who would you meet?

I would meet Richard Feynman. I’ve always admired not only his scientific ability but also his curiosity and sense of humor.