Startup Lessons From a Nobel Laureate: The Intersection of Science and Business with Dr. Walter Gilbert, Chemistry Laureate and Serial Entrepreneur

Preface: Avik Som, PhD, the Chief Medical Officer of Epharmix, attended the annual Lindau Noble Laureate Conference that led to a stimulating and rewarding relationship with Dr. Walter Gilbert. Dr. Gilbert advises Epharmix on strategies for clinical research, commercialization, and growth.

One of the most memorable aspects of working on Epharmix has been the continuing mentorship of some of the leading scientists in the country, such as Walter Gilbert, Nobel Prize in Chemistry and former CEO of Biogen.

On a picturesque island at the corner of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, 150 young scientists get the opportunity to meet the rock stars of scientific world, the extant living Nobel Laureate winners of physics, biology and chemistry, all of whom have created many times the bedrock on which new knowledge is built. As part of my PhD training, I had the fortune to have the opportunity to attend, thanks to Oak Ridge Associated Universities (originally an association that coordinated the Manhattan Project) to this conference.

As part of the week long event, at the America dinner I was able to meet and talk at length with Dr. Walter Gilbert.

Some quick background, for awhile now, I had been straddling a curious line between science and entrepreneurship, having founded IDEA labs a few months prior and just started the Epharmix story. Inside of traditional academic universities, it can be sometimes hard to find mentors who have straddled the line of research and entrepreneurship.  For the vision of a research driven digital health company, it was a priority for the team to build a brain trust to really create a proven new type of practice of medicine. However, given the norms of academia, I had not expected that the premiers of the field would really be any different.

I was very wrong.

Almost every other Nobel laureate that I met that week had a translational vision with often a small business, a start-up, several businesses all the way to the very top of the corporate ladder in the halls of industry. In retrospect, it makes sense, for such high powered individuals to want their science and impact to spread beyond the ivory tower.

Dr. Gilbert epitomizes this transition.  His Nobel prize work on sequencing DNA was only the beginning of a fascinating and translational career. He cofounded Biogen and then became its CEO, and later cofounded Myriad Genetics.

After his Nobel prize work discovering DNA he founded Myriad Genetics and then founded Biogen, serving as the CEO. The talk at the dinner was scintillating. Here was a mentor who straddled both lines.

Months later, I picked up the phone and called for a follow-up call. Biweekly since, Dr. Gilbert has been an advisor to both myself and Epharmix.

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Because of his background, Dr. Gilbert has been able to advise on the best strategy in research as well as how we should target sales. He was one of the first advisors to immediately get that as digital health we should focus on value based care, ACOs and care managers, instead of the fee for service world, and has ranged in advice from trial design, research writing, business structure, strategic sales, to investment.

We tend to focus on Nobel Laureates and their scientific accomplishments as researchers, but perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects has been the accomplishments in taking science outside of the lab. It is a pleasure and a privilege to work with, and learn from, Dr. Gilbert.

 

The following are some key lessons that, I hope, will benefit not only Epharmix, but also other aspiring entrepreneurs and healthcare innovators:

  1. Work closely with health care providers and representative patient populations to push research forward. The closer the relationships, the higher the final product and research quality.
  2. Publish research aggressively and quickly, and continue to advance and improve product quality over time. This is analogous to startups that delay launching “until the product is perfect,” only to find themselves behind the curve.
  3. Build the team with the market in mind. Particularly now, as the healthcare industry shifts to value-based economics over fee-for-service, it is important that teams working in digital health understand the incentive structures and the importance of clinical outcomes.
  4. Make the value tangible. Particularly in enterprise sales, customers need to understand how a new product or service impacts their bottom line; the onus is on the vendor to demonstrate that value.

Avik Som, PhD
MD/PhD Candidate | Washington University in St. Louis
Chief Medical Officer | Epharmix
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