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Harvard Innovation Labs Director, Mike Fenn, on startups, failing fast, and de-risking a career

Mike Fenn: Director of Harvard Innovation Labs

Mike Fenn, the Director of Healthcare and Life Sciences for Harvard Innovation Labs, glosses over his impressive resume and describes himself succinctly as “a recovering professor and a dedicated serial entrepreneur.”  His twin careers in the academic and business worlds have shaped his passion for commercializing scientific insights.

Failure Isn’t a Bad Thing

The Innovation Labs is a unit at Harvard which supports innovative entrepreneurship among members of the university’s community by connecting students to resources like academic expertise, funding, and legal advice, as well as providing laboratory space.  The Innovation Labs doesn’t take any ownership or ask for a return on its investment from the companies which emerge successfully from its ecosystem.  Instead, it takes the long view: successful innovators and entrepreneurs who trained at the Innovation Labs might donate their expertise and resources back later in their careers.

The Innovation Labs offer students at Harvard an important and unique learning opportunity: the chance to learn from failure.  Many of the students that Mike has mentored have experienced “rocket-like career trajectories,” full of incredible successes in many of their pursuits.  But the likelihood of success for any given entrepreneurial venture is extremely slim, according to Mike, perhaps as low as ten percent. “Failure isn’t that bad a thing” at this stage, he says, “because you can learn so much more from that than you do from the successes.” The resources available at the Innovation Labs provide a safety net for these students, and (unlike most sources of capital for technology startups, which aim to receive a financial return on their investment) encourages them to pursue ideas that are risky but potentially also very rewarding.

Grad School as Business Training

By the same token, Mike believes that PhD programs offer some of the best available training for entrepreneurs.  Graduate students spend years on projects which constantly need to be reworked and spend long stretches of time without getting positive results.  If you’re doing lab work, Mike says, “your experiments are going to fail 95% of the time.  And if they’re not failing at a rate like that then you’re probably not doing something very innovative.”  He thinks of failure as an inevitable and critical part of the process for both graduate school and entrepreneurship; learning from it is even more important than avoiding it.

Find something you love to do, and find really good mentors, and be prepared to work your ass off.

Mike Fenn

Mike credits his own time in graduate school and more specifically his mentor, Larry Hench, for instilling in him an awareness of opportunities outside of the traditional academic path.  Dr. Hench was a prolific inventor and entrepreneur; he is most famous for inventing and commercializing “BioGlass,” a glass compound which can bind to human bones.  He demonstrated to his students that publications aren’t the only output of their lab work; research could be turned into important products and services through commercialization. Mike speaks several times about how, through his own work, he hopes to shorten the “translational gap,” the long delay between knowledge secured by biomedical research and the generation of new drugs, treatments, and practices which will improve the health of patients.  He believes that one key to accomplishing that is to bring scientists out of the lab and into businesses.

What advice would Mike offer to any scientist, even those who remain interested in academia?  “Find something you love to do, and find really good mentors,” he says.  “And be prepared to work your ass off.”

Mike’s Favorite Books

Once a Scientist is made possible by support from our listeners! Each week, we ask our interviewee to tell us about their favorite books. If any of these reads catch your eye, you can support the show by using the links below to buy a copy for yourself!

Plus some free recommended reading sources from Mike: Endpoints News, STAT News, and Life Sci VC

Notes for this episode were written by Sam Asinof.

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