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The key to successful entrepreneurship in the life sciences

A conversation with Angelika Fretzen, Technology Translation Director at the Wyss Institute

By Lindsay Brownell

The key to successful entrepreneurship in the life sciences
Angelika Fretzen, Ph.D., M.B.A., is the Wyss Institute’s Technology Translation Director and has deep experience in biotech and entrepreneurial small pharma companies. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Entrepreneurs create new jobs, ignite innovation, and make significant contributions to the country’s economy. We sat down with Angelika Fretzen, Ph.D., M.B.A., the Wyss Institute’s Technology Translation Director with a strong background in biotech and entrepreneurial small pharmaceutical companies, to learn what she thinks is the key to successful entrepreneurship in the life sciences, and the skills scientists need to build effective companies.

Brownell: How is being an entrepreneur different now than it used to be?

Fretzen: Entrepreneurship has been around for a long time. A baker who opens a bakery, for example, is an entrepreneur, right? Today, with the explosion of the technology and healthcare industries, the problems are more complex and the value that one can create in those fields by being an entrepreneur is really high, so there’s more enthusiasm and sometimes hype around that type of high-risk, high-reward entrepreneurship. The kinds of high-value products that were previously associated with big corporations like Pfizer, or Eli Lilly, or HP can now be created by anybody who can build a team around a great product idea and get venture funding.

Brownell: Why do you think that’s now possible? What has enabled individuals to get the support they need to build a company in complex fields like biotech and healthcare?

Fretzen: When I was at Harvard as a postdoc in the chemistry department, most of the professors were still advising their students to either go into academia or go to big pharma, because that’s where the careers were. The biotech area had just started: Millennium, Biogen, Vertex, and Genzyme were young organizations, and there were very few success stories. So, it felt like a very risky field. Now, we have a lot more success stories. People have done it, so the venture capital firms are willing to invest in young entrepreneurs and complex ideas.

Brownell: Are there benefits to supporting smaller, start-up style companies in these fields rather than established corporations?

Fretzen: We have learned that a lot of times discovery research and the exploration of new ideas is done much better in these smaller entities because they’re more nimble. They use capital differently. The innovation is better. Decision-making is faster. There is more drive to do the killer experiment without politics getting into the way. Ultimately, the whole team owns and has to ensure the survival of a young organization by appropriately betting on the best ideas.  That dynamic leads to success stories, which makes investors and talented employees more willing to take a risk on a start-up because they’ve seen it can work, and they know that a certain number of tries are going to fail, but they could have one that has a 30-fold return.

Brownell: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing entrepreneurs in the biotech and pharma spaces right now? 

Fretzen: I think it’s talent. To me, entrepreneurship is about building teams, because the likelihood that your first idea fails is high. I think that the successful entrepreneurial leaders are the ones who build really great teams so that if they really fall down, there is a gritty and creative team to get back up, come up with a new idea, or learn from the first failure and make the next version much better. I think in an environment like Boston where there are so many incubators and so many opportunities and so much money, finding that talent and building the right team around a product is the hardest thing to do right now.

To me, entrepreneurship is about building teams.

Angelika Fretzen

Brownell: What kinds of skills do you think are required for building a great team into a successful company?

The key to successful entrepreneurship in the life sciences
Angelika Fretzen speaks with a member of a delegation of Dutch visitors to the Wyss Institute. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Fretzen: You’ve got to be a solid scientist so that you can establish your credibility with the people you’re working with, but just being a good scientist is by far not good enough. You have to be a great collaborator with the ability to lead and follow, prioritize the right idea, create a killer experiment, tell a compelling story…there are so many other skills that go into building a successful company. Especially with start-ups, because you will likely be working with people beyond your own team, at contract research organizations, for example. Efficiently managing teams who are somewhere else in another organization is a skill that is not that easy to find, and anybody who leads in this kind of environment has to teach their team how to do that.

Brownell: How would a scientist who is interested in starting their own company go about getting those skills and building that team?

Fretzen: I think you have to be really interested in mentors – not just high-profile professors, but people who have done entrepreneurship before. First, you have to be willing to learn, then find the best mentors and listen to them, then build a team around you and shift your thinking from about yourself to about the team. You have to really have something that I call “humble confidence:” the confidence that you can do it, and the humility to know all the things you don’t know and where you have to create a group around you that’s going to complement you. You have to have the willingness to give that as high of a priority as you give to your science.

Brownell: And that’s especially challenging in academia, where traditionally it’s all about how many articles you have your name on and your specific research projects.

Fretzen: That’s exactly right. I think that the real difference between an academic lab and commercialization and translation is the difference between being an individual contributor and being an incredible team player. People have to want to mentor you, want to work for you, want to listen to your story and potentially invest in it. That’s a whole different skill set and attitude from an academic career, where ultimately you have to impress on an individual level and build your own academic track record. I think as an entrepreneur, knowing how to collaborate, strategically assemble a team, and understand team dynamics is extremely important. There’s a lot of good science that never made it anywhere because it didn’t have the right team behind it. But the right team, I think, can identify a good technology, bring it to life, steer it through challenges, and create a great company around it.

Brownell: How have you applied this approach to help scientists at the Wyss Institute become successful entrepreneurs?

The key to successful entrepreneurship in the life sciences
The Wyss Institute brings together research scientists and industry experts to create synergistic teams that can successfully commercialize world-changing technologies. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Fretzen: The Wyss intrinsically has a collaborative structure, with a considerable number of partner institutions, that brings together faculty from lots of different fields who can collaborate, and we encourage them to write grants together. I think we can still do more to deeply seed and live the idea that it’s not just about your own individual contribution, but how you bring a team to bear on the problems you’re working on. A great example of that is what David Walt is doing with the Diagnostics Accelerator, bringing clinicians and scientists together and forming a community around the idea of creating disruptive technologies for diagnostics that will improve the clinicians’ decision-making and thus clinical outcome.

We also have our Entrepreneur-in-Residence program: when a team at the Wyss applies for a grant to pursue an Institute Project [to try to commercialize a technology], we identify somebody who brings entrepreneurial experience, who not only understands the technology but also has good chemistry with the scientific founders. We bring the right person on board to help guide that project towards the right user application, the right business model, and to build a strong team.

Brownell: Do you think having an entrepreneurial mindset could be beneficial even for scientists who aren’t interested in starting their own company?

Fretzen: Absolutely. Some of the entrepreneurial mindset is to identify opportunities and how to use them, which might be enabling somebody else to go out and commercialize your technology while you pursue your dream career in academia. I think that all of these options are open. To me, part of the entrepreneurial mindset is a rigorous, data-driven mindset. What does the competition look like? What’s the data I can obtain to differentiate my technology and show it is better, or what is the killer experiment? How much does it really cost for me to develop this product? That’s one part of being an entrepreneur, and scientists typically have a good foundation for that analytical kind of thinking. And then there is the other part of successful team building and seeing, “Hey, there’s a great product opportunity here, it’s not just fundamental science, who do I need to gather together to help move this idea forward?” Whether you are the one who will ultimately pursue the opportunity or you license it or give it to somebody else, the entrepreneurial mindset is beneficial, and you could even be a founder of a company while staying within academia. There are options and nowadays there’s a fluidity between industry and academia that I think is so beneficial for both sides.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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