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Fail Early, Fast and Cheap

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Fail Early, Fast and Cheap

Dec 20, 2013

Dr. Glen Prestwich, who holds 27 patents, has founded eight companies and was just made a fellow in the National Academy of Inventors, discusses the University of Utah’s remarkable record in developing technology and creating spinoff companies. One of the secrets is to get students involved early in the entrepreneurial process, so they can test their ideas and learn how the process works from seasoned faculty and inventors.

Episode Transcript

Announcer: Interesting, informative and all in the name of better health. This is The Scope Health Sciences Radio.

Interviewer: Today, we're speaking with Dr. Glenn Prestwich. Dr. Prestwich is the Presidential Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Utah, and is one of three faculty members who were just made a Fellow in the National Academy of Inventors. Today we're going to talk about the culture of impact at the University that has been created here that spurs a lot of start up companies and entrepreneurial ideas from researchers that are helping people worldwide. Tell us what a culture of impact is.

Dr. Prestwich: A culture of impact is a culture in which the research that is done by faculty and students is not done just to publish papers in a scholarly journal or just to win awards. It's really to discover things and bring those discoveries to the marketplace where they can actually make a difference in people's lives.

Interviewer: And how did this culture get created or started?

Dr. Prestwich: At one point, we realized that what we were doing that was so successful was involving students in the process so that it wasn't really about the entrepreneurial faculty per se, it was about the faculty members who were entrepreneurial. It was about the faculty members being mentors for students entrepreneurs. And over the past 10 years with a donation from Pierre Lassonde to create the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, where we're actually conducting this interview, we started seeding and growing the student entrepreneur program.
Separately, I had worked with former President of the University, Michael Young, to develop a Faculty entrepreneur group. Again, it was the first of its kind in the United States. There were no faculty entrepreneur groups at universities until President Young and I created this entity.

About halfway into this, two years into this, we realized that the Lassonde Institute with the student entrepreneurs and the faculty entrepreneurs really were an ideal marriage. The faculty had a relatively low risk profile, they had families and grants and students and mortgages. The students have to have risk. They take risks so they can figure out what works and what doesn't work for them personally and for them for their careers.

So you have risk-takers, and risk-averse people. You put them together. The risk-averse have more expertise. They have more gray hairs, they have more life experience, and they are much better suited as mentors for these risk-takers who are the ones with the passions and the feet on the ground that can actually get stuff done.

Interviewer: So, what the university is doing sounds like it's a very successful formula. How many other universities are doing this? Or if they aren't, why are they not?

Dr. Prestwich: When people ask me the question, "How do we recreate what Utah has done?" My answer is it's not creationism; it's evolution. You start with the bits and pieces that you have at your university that people are comfortable with, you add some things, you reassemble them, and you try a program. And don't be surprised if the first thing that you try fails. That's what evolution does. You try things and sometimes you fail.
But what you want to do to succeed:
fail early, fail cheap, and fail fast. And in my mind, even though that's the mantra, that's the way business people say it, I don't even say that that's a failure. Because if you haven't committed many resources to it, it's not so much a failure as you've tried something and recognized that it didn't work the way you thought it would. And so you're not really failing early and failing cheap, you're trying something, you're doing a pilot, and you're testing the waters.

Interviewer: So you have 27 patents, and you've started eight companies.

Dr. Prestwich: That's right.

Interviewer: What is it in you that makes you do that?

Dr. Prestwich: I say this frequently, and it always gets a laugh, but it's true. I'm very intellectually promiscuous. I like to start stuff. I like to be involved with things when they're exciting. I get bored pretty easily by running a business, and so that's what I do. I'm the intellectually promiscuous guy that thinks all over the place, and then I have to have somebody who is intellectually monogamous to run the company.
Companies have to focus, and if all you do as a faculty member is focus on one thing, you're not going to have the next great idea. The idea is the next great ideas come from interfaces, from unexpected inspiration from other places.

Interviewer: Any final thoughts?

Dr. Prestwich: If you want to translate something from the laboratory to actual use by people in society, there is a process that I call the translational imperative. And it's only six words. The first one is embrace complexity. Look at the complex situation, look at all the manifestations of what you have to deal with, the regulatory pathway, the manufacturing pathway, all the different things that you could do with this technology. Start there, embrace that.
And then, take the next step, which is engineer versatility. Take that complexity, distill it down to something that's close to what you think you can make, and that can solve more than one problem. So, embrace the complexity, engineer versatility, but the last two words are deliver simplicity. Whatever the product is, people have to understand it, people have to be able to use it, and it has to make a difference.

Announcer: We're your daily dose of Science, conversation and medicine. This is The Scope. University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.