By Marsha Green, Duke Translational Medicine Institute
Speaking to a roomful of more than 100 students, postdocs, faculty and staff, Donald McDonnell, PhD, bluntly explained why he considers himself an entrepreneur and why encouraging entrepreneurship at the university is not just desirable, but necessary. “The people in my area of research are so heavily involved in entrepreneurship because we need it,” said McDonnell, the Glaxo-Wellcome Professor of Microbiology and chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology at Duke. “We cannot survive if we rely on NIH funding alone. We want to develop drugs in the laboratory and bring those drugs to the clinic. In this abyss of translation there is very little money in the public sector. You have to go to the private sector to be successful.”
McDonnell’s comments fueled a compelling panel discussion on “The Duke Entrepreneurial Experience: the Journey from Idea to Impact.” The event was part of Duke’s Entrepreneurship Week, sponsored by the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship initiative. The evening explored faculty stories of creating businesses to solve problems, and raised awareness of Duke’s institutional investment in entrepreneurial activities. In addition to the faculty panel, Duke faculty and staff presented information about Duke services such as the Duke Translational Research Institute, the Office of Licensing and Ventures, and entrepreneurship programs at the Law School and the Fuqua School of Business.
Two other faculty members joined McDonnell for the first part of the evening to share their stories of entrepreneurship. Bradi Granger, school of nursing professor, walked the audience through the clinical problems that prompted the creation of an interactive iPad application called “The Drag and Drop Pillbox” to improve patient adherence to complicated medication plans in cardiac care. Jeff Glass shared what he had learned by flip- flopping between academia and the private sector and how it has altered his understanding of what an entrepreneurship curriculum requires.
While each faculty member’s story was unique, a common theme quickly emerged: entrepreneurship is not about creating a successful company. It is about solving a problem.
Asked what skills students should develop, the panelists answered easily: the ability to identify a problem, the ability to articulate why it is important, and a willingness to adapt to course changes as new ideas and information surface. “Be excited by science, but not married to what you did your postdoc on,” quipped McDonnell.
Following the faculty panel, representatives from offices and programs at Duke that support the entrepreneurial spirit among faculty gave brief introductions to their services.
Rose Ritts, director of the Office of Licensing and Ventures, described her office as a place where Duke faculty can explore options for protecting their intellectual property. “You have to know your secret sauce, and how to protect it,” she said. “But there are many different options, from licensing, to patents, to confidentiality agreements.”
Victoria Christian, chief operating office for the Duke Translational Research Institute, encouraged faculty and students to reach out to the experts at DTRI and other support offices when they have ideas they believe are worth exploring. “Our job is to get you in touch with people who can magnify your impact,” she said.
Kip Frey, Director of the Law and Entrepreneurship program at Duke Law School, told aspiring entrepreneurs that he looks for two key components in a new business idea. “I look for an intersection of two things. First, can the individual or group identify an actual problem that I can imagine someone having? Second, and this is the capitalist in me, can I imagine someone paying to have that problem solved? With those two things, I can get excited about pretty much any idea.”
Jon Fjeld, Professor of the Practice and Executive Director for the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Fuqua School of Business, advised those in attendance that “it’s a mistake to try and force a template on an idea before you have enough shape. Draw from the idea to determine the type of venture.”