Great risk for great reward: Entrepreneurship in the life sciences

Meet the life sciences entrepreneurs
Meet the life sciences entrepreneurs: Greg Hines and Paul Chipperton

On a scale of 1 to 10, how well do you accept risk?

According to Greg Hines, CEO of ArcticDx Inc., you had better be a seven or above if you want to work in a start-up environment.

At last Wednesday’s packed Entrepreneurship 101 session, moderated by MaRS’ own John McCulloch, we benefited from the experiences of seasoned life-science entrepreneurs (and MaRS clients) Greg Hines, Paul Chipperton (CEO of Profound Medical), and Steve Herman (President of MedCurrent). They emphasized that an appetite for risk was a key quality in any budding entrepreneur.

The panelists described the challenges they face, how they manage the difficulties of the job, how they got started, and essentially, why they do it.

Everyone agreed that the search for financing is “enormously difficult”, but so too is getting the right people on board and building a “culture of expansion” within the organization. Paul described the ongoing human resources challenge that is creating a team and an environment that will drive the success of a small venture. There should be a culture of support in which the team has the confidence to push boundaries and test limits, but there should also be structure and a means of determining when people have gone too far or lost focus. In a small organization, every single individual contributes to its ultimate success or failure.

The panelists each had a very different reason for starting out on their own:

  • Steve saw a need in the market, had a vision for the future of radiological practice and decided to create himself the future that he imagined.
  • Greg had an entrepreneurial spirit hammered into him during his days as a pharmaceutical rep, where he was always waiting for the next new and exciting product, and primed for constant redevelopment. Running a start-up followed naturally.
  • Paul knows he can’t be pigeon-holed and was bored with his job as a medicinal chemist; with an appetite for risk and an enthusiasm for the autonomy and “drama” that entrepreneurialism provides, it was a perfect fit.

That’s not to say that the role was what they expected — it was much harder! All the panelists were unprepared for the longer hours, stress, and the number of general “things to do” that could never be predicted beforehand.

So why do they do it? All agreed, simply, that they love it. Paul told us of the feeling of fighting against the odds, believing in something and making it happen, the challenge, the changing circumstances, the drama of having no money one day and lots of money the next and delicately, constantly having to balance extremes. Greg termed it “self-actualization”: he and his team believe that it can be done, so they want to get out there and do it. Steve eloquently stated that he would hate to look back on his life and say, “Why didn’t I do something about it?,” so he pursues his vision relentlessly.

Entrepreneurs have specific qualities that separate them from the general human. Steve picked “being able to get up off the floor” as a characteristic; Greg and Paul talked about their tolerance for risk and taste for pain. But overall, it’s an irrepressible drive for success and for making something greater than what currently exists. Entrepreneurship in the Life Sciences requires patience, perseverance, and driving to the Buffalo airport to save on flights to the US. Do you have that same passion?

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