The following interview is part of a class assignment for Entrepreneurship and the Hero Adventure at SMU, Meadows School of the Arts. Each interview has been conducted and created by students for this course, which celebrates those heroes in our communities. Heroism, for the purpose of this course and assignment is described as:
- Service of something larger than oneself.
- A willingness to sacrifice in the name of service.
Q: Where do you believe your journey began?
In medical school I thought I was just going to be a family doc like anybody else. I got involved in research as a freshman in medical school and really liked it. I ended up thinking I would become an academic researcher. But despite the fact that I had had a successful research career in medical school and then during my residency and fellowship work, that was when the world went to molecular biology. And I was not a molecular biologist. I was what was called a translational researcher: someone who takes ideas and goes to the bedside with those, and does clinical research. And that was really not popular when I was coming into academics. I realized it was unlikely that I would get tenure. At that point I was at University of Chicago, where the likelihood of getting tenure doing clinical research was really quite limited.
So I decided that I would go into industry. I started out at big pharmaceutical companies: Schering Plow, Sandoz before it became Novartis, and then Johnson & Johnson, which everybody would recognize. And in those days, Johnson & Johnson was decentralized, and even though it was part of a big company, you could be part of a smaller unit that could behave more entrepreneurially. And I liked that – I liked being a change agent.
I once did a presentation at Rice where I talked about intrepreneurship, which is behaving entrepreneurially, but inside of a big company. It’s a term that people occasionally use, although you don’t see it much. But intrepreneurship was a concept I liked when I was inside of a big company, and I would really try to bring change.
Q: What position did you hold during those big corporate years?
I started off doing first-in-man clinical studies. I came into the company as, I guess you would say, middle management. But perhaps because I thought more creatively than the people around me, I progressed pretty rapidly. And after six years in the industry, I went to Johnson & Johnson as the head of Research & Development for their biggest pharmaceutical unit – Janssen. And then I went on to be a company president. But in a company that big, even being a company president is still somewhat middle management. At the next level up I would have been considered a corporate insider – but I still would have been a couple levels away from the CEO of Johnson & Johnson. At what level do you become senior management and stop being middle management – I don’t know.
At that point I had left pharmaceuticals; I was president of International for their Diagnostics group, and I really missed pharmaceuticals. I missed what I felt was closer to patience, and I felt I had gotten too far from my medical training and my research background. And that’s what caused me to leave Johnson & Johnson and go to work for a smaller public biotech company.
So now I’m getting closer to true entrepreneurship, because there is a huge amount of risk. And I think what really characterizes entrepreneurship is taking risk. You take these major risks, and hope for reward. So leaving big mother Johnson & Johnson and going to a small public biotechnology company was entering a world where risk is a much bigger piece of what you do.
What drew me there was that they were developing a drug for a disease that was essentially untreatable: Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension. It is an orphan disease, characterized by relatively few people having it. We had a very interesting drug for that. We got the drug approved in Europe, Australia, and Canada, but the US FDA would not approve it. And that wound up really killing the company. It ended up getting bought out by Pfizer, because we were on the market in other countries. But because the FDA wouldn’t approve it destroyed a lot of shareholder value.
The board of directors and I parted company at that point. It was one of these things where I was willing to stay – they were willing to have me stay. But the terms of that were such that what I was willing to stay and do and what they were willing to have me stay and do were somewhat different. I was willing to stay on the terms of the company being bought. But if the board decided that rather than being bought they would want to soldier on, I still wanted to be paid. I was taking personal risk staying, I felt. And there was a lot of time pressure, as we were preparing for the possibility that the FDA wouldn’t approve our drug. We had prepared a major downsizing, which we would have to do. And we felt that if we were to decide if I were to stay or leave, that would have to be decided under that same time pressure. So at that point I was happy to leave, and they were happy to have me leave. But they did have to look like they were in charge of the situation. So basically at the same time that we laid off essentially two thirds of the company, we announced that I was leaving as well.
So then it was really a decision: do I go back to a big company, or do I stay entrepreneurial? And I really liked being in this entrepreneurial space, so I decided that while [my son] was finishing high school I would stay in Houston and consult with small companies. And the truth is, most small companies don’t make it. And you know, some of the people I consulted with did well and managed to stay funded, and some of the companies haven’t. For anyone hoping to go into the entrepreneurial world, one of the things you have to face is that you may fail. And you may fail repeatedly before you succeed.
So currently I’m acting as the Chief Operating Officer – so I guess, second in command – of a small public biotech company. And we are trying to cure Hepatitis B, which currently is not curable. So very high risk. This virus has of course been around forever. It causes a million people to die each year to liver cancer or liver failure. And we think we have a way to cure it. But we won’t know until we take it into humans, and take it all the way through the testing process and see if we can get it approved. We will spend – assuming it doesn’t fail along the way – hundreds of millions of dollars that people will invest in us on the hope that it works. It will either succeed or fail, and we won’t know for another seven or eight years.
So that’s the very essence of entrepreneurship: investment, risk – personal risk, risk of the people who believe in you, and give you large sums of money. And that’s a really interesting way to live, and there are interesting choices to make. But you know, we’re always hopeless optimists – and sometimes it really does work and you create something really special. In my case I have always been really excited to bring a new drug to market, because if it works it can help literally millions of people. And that’s a very exciting thing to do.
Q: Tell us about your experience with mentorship.
I mentioned that I started of with research in medical school. And I was lucky – I got with a great mentor who went on to be a very famous academic leader. He ran the University of Pennsylvania medical system, and was a very famous researcher in his own right – a diabetologist. And then when I went to Harvard I hooked up with a guy who wound up being just as famous as my first mentor, and is now the head of Duke’s medical system. They really helped me grow a lot. And not just academically or inspirationally. A lot of it was observational. One of the skills I hadis that I’d become very good at observing the leaders around me, and trying to emulate the aspects of them that I admired: how they carried themselves, how they presented, how they behaved. I watched all of that – I just soaked it up. In those early years it was less about being mentored than understanding what made them special.
In academics I actually found less mentoring than when I went into industry. In industry there really is a lot of active mentoring that goes on: people who spot talent and try to help that talent progress. And I had a lot of people from the very beginning, from when I went to Schering Plow, who spotted that I had talent and made it their business to try to help me be successful.
So I learned a lot from emulating people, and I learned a lot from people trying to be helpful to me. And then I’ve basically spent the last twenty years trying to pay that back. I mentor people all the time. People get sent to me all the time for advice, and for mentorship. And I try to help people: I try to help them find good jobs, to handle real life choices, and tough issues. And that’s mentorship.
So I really do think for entrepreneurs, finding people who can help them – and it’s not always for money – but it’s also someone you can bring your ideas to. Someone who can critique those ideas, and help you make them better. People who can review your business plan, and help you tighten it up. All of those kinds of mentorship can be hugely helpful.
So for me, mentors were very important early on. And later in life it’s been a source of enjoyment and inspiration for me to be able to mentor others. In the entrepreneurial community it is just talked about all the time how important mentorship can really be.
Q: What three pieces of advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Well, be prepared to work very hard. Entrepreneurs – well, maybe there’s the occasional entrepreneur who is just so damn lucky, has such a great idea, that they don’t have to work hard – but the vast majority of entrepreneurs I’ve known just work like crazy. They have to believe in what they’re doing, and they just work very hard.
Secondly, be prepared for failure. Most entrepreneurs fail – most ideas are flawed in some way. Or you have a really great idea, but somebody had it before you. So just understand that failure is an important reality.
And then just persistence. Entrepreneurs just don’t give up. You’re going to be told “no” a hundred times before someone finally says “yes.” Because entrepreneurs are always asking for money – they’re always looking for support. It’s a rare entrepreneur who can self-fund their idea. Usually you’re going to family or you’re going to friends, or you’re going to strangers. You’re asking for a job, asking for help, asking for support for your idea – and most of them are going to say no. So you’re going to have to be willing to be persistent.
So it’s a paradox, that you have to be aware that you’re probably going to fail, and yet you’ve got to be amazingly persistent at not believing that’s going to happen. Believe in yourself, believe in what you’re doing, believe that it matters and is important, but understand that in the end if it doesn’t make it you can’t be crushed by it. You have to be willing to pick yourself up and do it again.