Life as a Serial Entrepreneur
Recently, I was sitting in a local coffee shop trying to think of a topic for my editorial in this issue of IEEE Pulse, and I was having little success. I thought it ironic that I spend the majority of my day writing e-mails, proposals, and reports but couldn’t think of a topic for what should be a simple assignment: writing this column. Since becoming editor-in-chief of IEEE Pulse, I am now challenged to think of interesting topics on which I can opine on a regular basis. After some thought, I elected to fall back on the tried and true writer’s adage and write about what I know: what it is like to be a serial entrepreneur.
It’s funny, but I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur growing up. My parents weren’t business people—my dad was an engineer and my mother a nurse—but I did learn from my dad that several of my descendants were small business owners—architects, engineers, and even an undertaker—offering their professional services. Because of this, I suppose I was genetically programmed to be receptive to an entrepreneurial environment, and that gene turned on and began to express itself during my time at MIT in the mid-1990s. Since then, I’ve started a number of companies over the past 20 years—six at last count. Some have been successful, others less so, and I think by now I have the lumps and bruises to legitimately call myself an entrepreneur.
Given the many challenges, why invest so much personal time and energy (and money) in starting companies when the risk of failure is so high? It is the excitement of overcoming those odds by bringing to market products that captivate and thrill customers. By nature, I’m competitive and like to win, so my reward is when a customer chooses my solution over another. Even better is the unmistakable momentum when more customers choose your product, sales increase, and the company begins to lift off. Maybe I have a gambling streak, but I find beating the start-up odds to create a thriving enterprise addictive.
Delighted customers are clearly an inspiration. I had this experience last July when I was in Osaka, Japan, for the 2013 IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society Conference and took a break from the meeting to visit a prospective big pharma customer to see if they’d be interested in what my current company, HiFiBiO BV, offers. I made a number of “cold calls” and eventually connected with the head of their Lead Discovery Department with whom I arranged to meet. Initially, I thought we had no common connection, but, to my surprise, they are regular and happy customers of RapidFire, a product I developed at one of my previous companies, BioTrove, and is now sold by Agilent. To hear of their success with RapidFire was gratifying, and it made my day.
Despite the successes, I’ve had my share of failures. Customer needs are sometimes misunderstood, leading to a more expensive and longer product development timeline that delays sales and results in the company running out of money. This is a common scenario (with variants of course) that results in the company failing to achieve commercial liftoff and eventually going out of business. Unlike a crapshoot in the casino, where the outcome is probabilistic, the risk with a start-up company is controlled by thoughtful planning, understanding customer needs and market structure and dynamics, and surrounding yourself with smart, experienced people. Sure, taking these prudent steps could still lead to the failure of the business, but I have learned that following this minimal course of action leads to better outcomes.
Overall, I can say from my personal experience that the process and results involved with being a serial entrepreneur can be rich and rewarding. So, to those readers who choose to venture down this path, my hope is that your experience will be as exciting and satisfying as mine.
I would like to thank our guest editors, Ali Khademhosseini and Akhilesh Gaharwar, for their guidance in preparing the special features on nanomaterials in this issue. Our gratitude goes out to their support in identifying emerging topics and researchers.