By Kate Merton, Ph.D.
Every entrepreneur takes a risk by starting a company, but doing it in the healthcare space takes a specific kind of bravery and grit. With the skepticism from VCs, the unpredictability of the science, and the mountain of government regulations and trials – a health startup has more than the usual amount of obstacles facing an entrepreneur along the way.
So, what does it take?
I believe you need a stroke of genius, a touch of insanity, and the grit to keep coming back again and again in the face of steep challenges.
A stroke of genius: Learn and relearn everything
Growing up as the youngest of six in Britain, my mother always told me that everyone has gifts, and should use them to help others. That’s when I knew I wanted to go into healthcare. My sights were set on becoming a doctor, but I soon realized that if I changed to pharmacology, I could help lots of people at once. After a few years of working on heart failure drugs, I found my work was satisfying but there was something missing. I wanted to do more and help spur innovation in our industry to bring about big changes in patient outcomes and providers’ diagnoses.
I started looking around, but although I was a good pharmacologist, I knew nothing about bringing a drug to market. So I began working in clinical trials, marketing and business development, and even went back to school – attending Fuqua at Duke and completing my thesis on innovation centers. Eventually, I left my job to join the innovation arm at another pharmaceutical company – and now here I am at JLABS’ innovation centers in NYC and Boston, working with inspiring health entrepreneurs every day.
My point is, in health innovation especially, you can’t be afraid to constantly learn new things and relearn all that you think you know. From the science, to the approvals process, to the marketing and development of a final product or drug, there is no end to the constantly changing needs and requirements in health care. So just keep learning.
A touch of insanity: Your peers aren’t the enemy
In the tech world – Silicon Valley especially – competition drives fierce feelings and cut-throat interactions between entrepreneurs. In healthcare tech however, we don’t have that ability or the luxury.
Don’t get me wrong: health entrepreneurs are are some of the fiercest and most driven people on the planet. But we simply can’t go it all alone, alienating fellow researchers and making other (or bigger) companies the enemy. Collaboration is key – and often required in our line of work.
In my role, I like to say that I’m like this foster parent – people will come and spend a few years with me and their peers at JLABS @ NYC, and I’m going to love them and take care of them and support them. I’m not going to adopt them and take their equity or IP, but I’m going to give them all the care and education that they needed to then go on and prosper somewhere else. That’s a big difference from most incubator or accelerator models, but like with our entrepreneurs, we have a higher purpose than simply beating out competition.
We’re playing the long game on health innovation. The only way to succeed is to learn from the science of others, to soak in guidance from those who have gone down the path of government approvals and commercialization before, and maybe even to partner with others later on to fully get your product to market.
True grit: Rise above noise and focus on innovation
There is quite a bit of failure involved in health innovation. Health entrepreneurs have to push through more phases of their business than traditional tech developers. It’s one hard thing to create a drug, but it’s another completely to get it developed, approved, and out to market. That takes real grit and determination.
I trained as a pharmacologist and was able to work in the discovery team in cardiovascular metabolic disease, where we discovered a drug for heart failure. It was a biochemist’s dream: you have been given this wonderful molecule, now you need to test it and see how it works in the right model. You have clinical trials, FDA approval – it’s a long process. Having been through that experience though, I can tell you it is extremely rewarding.
Health entrepreneurs set out to change the world and help diagnose, intercept, and fight disease. It’s not enough to have an idea and then say, oh, that didn’t work, never mind. It’s not enough to find results and develop a product, then stop short before it can go to patients and doctors. Education, collaboration, and grit are vital to the success of a health entrepreneur, even more than a traditional tech startup founder.
Kate Merton, Ph.D., is the Head of New York and Boston @ JLABS, a global life sciences and health innovation hub.