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One Thing Life Science Entrepreneurs Can't Have? Fetishes

One Thing Life Science Entrepreneurs Can’t Have? Fetishes

There’s no silver bullet for becoming a successful life science entrepreneur. But at a session on entrepreneurship and innovation at the FutureMed conference at Singularity University in the Silicon Valley last week, three panelists shared their tips on achieving entrepreneurial success.

The secret to medical innovation is to innovate for the patient, said Dr. David Shaywitz, co-founder of the Center for Assessment Technology and Continuous Health. “We need to solve the problems that patients have in the world,” he said, “not just get excited about the technology and forget who we’re doing it for.” The challenge for medical innovators, Shaywitz added, is to drive new technology, but not fetishize it. The goal of digital health is better health for real people.

Shaywitz offered the following lessons for digital health entrepreneurs:

  • Data ≠ insight
  • Insight ≠ value
  • Forecasting = unreliable
  • Implementation = hard

Even more difficult than implementation, he added, is changing behavior. Technology can be enabling, but it takes a lot of work to get there. The most important mission for entrepreneurs and innovators, Shaywitz said, is to ensure powerful technology is brought to bear on discrete problems facing patients.

Esther Dyson, a startup investor and principal at EDventure, focused on the realities of running an entrepreneurial company. She told the fable of a man who arrived in a village with a stone, which he claimed could make a magic soup that cured disease. While the stone is just an average pebble, and the man a con artist, Dyson said entrepreneurs could learn from the story. An entrepreneur creates a new device, she said, and works to turn it into a product of great value. The challenge for the entrepreneur, Dyson said, is to not just make that magic soup once. He must start a restaurant, expand to a restaurant chain and eventually create an organization that will survive his departure. 

Think twice about striving to become a “hero entrepreneur” like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, Dyson said. Despite the myth surrounding these famous entrepreneurs, she said, they lead frustrating, challenging lives. “Do you really want to be the hero CEO?” Dyson asked. “Or do you want to be the brilliant person who creates the technology and hires a CEO or investors to do the boring stuff?”

As a startup investor, Dyson said she doesn’t focus on the product. Instead, she looks for a team that can fix the product when something goes wrong. It’s not just the CEO of the company that matters, Dyson said. Also integral are the two or three other people who complement the CEO.

Dr. Jeremy Stone, co-founder of Medical Futures, said the emphasis on wellness in health innovation efforts could help prevent disparities in affordability and access to care. Despite “every confidence in the innovative powers of the valley,” Stone said, innovation needs to be put in the context of affordability. And because there simply aren’t enough collective physician hours for interacting with patients on the intricacies of wellness, he said, we have to seek other solutions that can change behaviors.

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