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Entrepreneurial advice from our hive mind

The newest members of the Wyss Mentor Hive share their experiences and guidance for those looking to bring their innovative ideas to market for near-term impact

By Jessica Leff

At the Wyss Institute, we’re committed to teaching entrepreneurship in its many forms, preparing our community members to advance their work for maximum impact. In addition to opportunities to collaborate with our technology translation teams and attend educational lecture series, our researchers are introduced to the members of the Wyss Mentor Hive, consisting of seasoned life science entrepreneurs who are enthusiastic about guiding mentees towards their goals.

This year, we’ve added three new mentors to the Hive: Milad Alucozai,, M.P.H., Dr.P.H., Milenko Jovan Tanasijevic, M.D., M.B.A., and Bruce Thompson, Ph.D., each with a unique entrepreneurial journey.

So, in pursuit of our dedication to educating aspiring entrepreneurs, we asked our new mentors to share their valuable experiences and advice. Here is what they said:

What is your experience with entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurial advice from our hive mind
Milad Alucozai,, M.P.H., Dr.P.H., Wyss Mentor Hive member.

Milad Alucozai: I never set out to be an entrepreneur. I didn’t know what that term really meant early in my career. After training as a neuroscientist, I spent years working in translational neuroscience and multiphysics labs, collaborating with multidisciplinary teams. Many of our applications went through technology transfer and I started thinking about what it meant to commercialize an innovation, even checking out a book from the library to try and learn more about startups. After growing up in Afghanistan and experiencing the struggle of immigrating to the United States, there’s nothing life can throw at me that scares me.

So, I founded two biotechnology companies and served as Chief Business Officer of two others. This chapter of my life is focused on investing – I’m the head of Bio and Deep Tech at BoxOne Ventures. There is no greater feeling than seeing real impact from companies I’ve invested in, and knowing I played a small role in that.

Milenko Jovan Tanasijevic: My training is in the discipline of clinical pathology, which encompasses all major categories of laboratory tests.  Apart from my clinical and administrative duties as the former Vice Chair of Clinical Pathology at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, I have done clinical research in the areas of biomarkers of myocardial injury, computerized clinical decision support, and laboratory process improvement.

My entrepreneurial journey started as a senior advisor for several major in vitro diagnostics companies, as well as a number of early-stage lab diagnostic startups around the country. In 2001, I co-founded Cell Imaging Systems Inc., which went on to develop a novel, image-based technology to obtain complete blood count and WBC differential count. We assigned and licensed the core technology to Constitution Medical Investors Inc., which was acquired by Roche Professional Diagnostics in July 2013. 

Bruce Thompson: I started my career in large pharma, where I learned drug development and prepared for downstream elements of technology translation. After about 10 years, I moved to the complete opposite side and took an academic position at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, leading their Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) manufacturing team. There, I learned a great deal about the clinical and basic science side of cellular therapy. Then, I joined a spin-out company and have remained in the startup space ever since. Most recently, I became CEO of Kincell Bio, a newly formed cell therapy contract development and manufacturing organization focused on early stage clinical GMP manufacturing and process/analytical development. Through my portfolio of experience, I learned how these ideas come to fruition, how to spin out these ideas into a startup, and what it looks like to work at a large organization.

What is one unexpected roadblock you faced in your entrepreneurial journey, and how did you address it? 

Milad: I feel like roadblocks were a daily event, but I’ll share one recent example. At my last company, when we were first fundraising, it was very difficult to convince investors to take a shot on us. This wasn’t because of the dynamic of our team – we had amazing technical talent. There was a lot of skepticism because there were larger companies in our space, and everybody doubted we could be as successful as a particular big company. We had to overcome this challenge by not letting the “no”s weigh us down. You can’t let rejection stick with you. All it takes is one person to say “yes” for the right reasons. Eventually, that happened, and we found the right group of investors who believed in us. Today, that other company is almost non-existent and we’re one of the world leaders in our space. 

You can’t let rejection stick with you. All it takes is one person to say ‘yes’ for the right reasons.

Milad Alucozai
Entrepreneurial advice from our hive mind
Milenko Jovan Tanasijevic, M.D., MB.A., Wyss Mentor Hive member.

Milenko: A nascent young company is often confronted with many challenges, some quite unforeseen. For example, I was a co-founder of a startup that aimed at communicating lab results along with their interpretation directly to the patient. This was in the very early days of the internet. While the primary caregivers were quite receptive to the idea, the VC community was unclear as to who would possibly want to pay for our services. Our original idea was subsequently proven valid, as evidenced by several hospitals having adopted this approach today, but it was way ahead of its time.

So, I think it’s important to make sure that your idea addresses a significant unmet near- or intermediate-term need and that you can articulate a credible revenue generating strategy based on commercial factors clearly visible at the time you formulate your business plan.

Bruce: For me, it was probably the lack of final decision authority. I spent both my first and second startup opportunities at the vice president level, which was a great leadership development experience, but ultimately you are only making a recommendation when it comes to big choices. It took time to learn how to put together the best arguments and how to manage the executive leadership team. I had to step back and think about what I would look for to make decisions if I were in that role and figure out what kind of discussion to have, then quickly synthesize that into a suggestion. Developing a more strategic approach to decision-making streamlined our ability to move quickly and make choices with limited information, which is critical in the startup environment.

What might new entrepreneurs find surprising?

 Milad: A big part of building a successful startup company is your ability to build a community around what you do. That is my secret weapon to every startup I’ve built, even my current investment portfolio companies. If you develop a network of strong founders, some a little bit ahead of you in the process and some a little bit behind you, then they can help you can get through difficult challenges in a meticulous way. It may be shocking, because there’s this mindset that you don’t want to work with other founders because they’re your competitors, but they can be incredibly valuable.

Some folks find it surprising that securing unique, inimitable expertise, and know-how are way more important than preservation of equity.

Milenko Jovan Tanasijevic
Entrepreneurial advice from our hive mind
Bruce Thompson, Ph.D., Wyss Mentor Hive member.

Milenko: Let’s say you start with a well-defined, crisp concept and a carefully chosen team that can – at least in theory – carry the initial idea through the proof-of-concept stage.  As happens all too often, you subsequently encounter some unexpected technical barriers that make you realize you are lacking critical domain expertise. Do you continue trying to solve the vexing issue on your own, thereby preserving your precious founder’s pie? Some folks find it surprising that securing unique, inimitable expertise and know-how are way more important than preservation of equity. This often delays product development and results in the original idea being superseded by competitors.

Bruce: The number of hats you need to wear! Often, coming out of academic medical centers or institutions, you think that your fantastic idea is going to materialize because the science is so great. While solid research sets the basis, there are a lot of elements in the day-to-day that get forgotten. When I started Kincell, I was the head of the company, the head of marketing, the head of sales, and the head of branding. That’s a lot of things! You have to cover all of your bases one way or another. It’s important to seek out talented team members, mentors, or others in your network who help to cover your blind spots and support your growing venture.

What do you hope you can offer to Wyss project teams?

Milad: I bring a little bit of positive energy and optimism mapped with radical candor and deep expertise that I think will be translatable to teams at the Wyss. As an entrepreneur, you want to feel comfortable and know your voice is heard by the person on the other side. This can pose a challenge with many investors, as they often view your meetings as mere pitches and may hastily form their initial judgments, potentially writing you off completely before giving you a real chance.  While I’m a venture capitalist by profession, I’m still just a scientist and entrepreneur who understands the technical side and what it’s like to be in your shoes. I’m pretty approachable and willing to have those tough conversations. I want others to achieve the American dream that I’ve been lucky enough to get a glimpse of because special people believed in me when nobody could pronounce my name or understand what I was doing. So, I’m doing my best to empower people.

Milenko: The Wyss is developing an impressive portfolio of cutting-edge, innovative diagnostic platforms with the potential to really change clinical care by offering more accurate, faster and/or more user-friendly lab tests. What I believe I can bring to the table is decades of experience and knowledge about ways to develop and validate novel biomarkers and lab diagnostic technologies to ensure their rapid adoption in clinical practice.

A lot of companies that have spun out over the last three to four years have been very top-heavy. They have…an entire c-suite and only two or three people doing the actual day-to-day work. I can help guide teams on where to spend their money, how to partner effectively, and how to make the most of their resources.

Bruce Thompson

Bruce: I can offer some insight and experience when thinking about translational events from the scientific elements to the appropriate components of a company. A lot of companies that have spun out over the last three to four years have been very top-heavy. They have six to ten people, consisting of nearly an entire c-suite and only two or three people doing the actual day-to-day work. I can help guide teams on where to spend their money, how to partner effectively, and how to make the most of their resources. This is increasingly important as funding gets tighter and must last longer into the development cycle of a company.

What’s your number one piece of advice for aspiring life science entrepreneurs and startup founders?

Milad: Discipline and dedication really matter. There are a lot of high-energy, intense people in this business and there will be a lot of highs and lows. Discipline is the reason we made it through a lot of difficult moments. When I look back on why something worked, it was often a lot of discipline and patience.

And then it’s important to be committed and passionate. You may not find success right away. These are the best years of your life, so don’t waste them pursuing a startup just for the sake of awards or quick financial gain, do it because you can’t do anything else. For a lot of founders, this is what they live and breathe. If you have that level of dedication, you’ll have a great outcome. Trust your gut.

Milenko: In my experience, perseverance and patience are two key attributes of successful entrepreneurs. The innumerable problems that present during the typical decade or longer journey from an idea to a commercially viable product will surely challenge and potentially exhaust many aspiring entrepreneurs.  It is therefore essential to persevere and maintain faith in your team’s ability to navigate through tough times.

Bruce: It always takes more time than you think. There are stories out there where people spin out a company and have an IPO six months later, but that’s rare. If you truly believe in the science and what you’re doing, it’s going to take time because you want to do it right. So, always budget more effort and more time than you anticipate.

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