Reeling in the Next Big Medical Innovation

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and the next thing you know he’s patented the rod and improved the experience for millions. That’s the underlying premise of the Walleye Tank.

For years, scientists have been developing technology and passing it along to someone else to carry out the licensing and marketing. The idea is pervasive – why should scientists bother learning the business side? Stephen Ekker, Ph.D., a molecular biologist at Mayo Clinic seeks to correct that notion. By giving scientists the tools they need, he hopes to spark an entrepreneurial culture among researchers.

Transferrable Skills

“Every researcher is an entrepreneur,” says Xavier Frigola, Ph.D., coordinator of the Mayo Clinic Business Accelerator. “They have to secure funding, hire employees, and bring the venture to fruition.”

Rapt attention during the entrepreneurship talks at the "Walleye Tank"
Rapt attention during the entrepreneurship talks at the "Walleye Tank"

Every research project begins with a question. The idea often stems from recognizing an unmet patient need or recognition of a wider problem. Funding must be secured through grants. The investigators must sell their idea, facilities, and personnel as the means to solve that problem. From there, running a lab is similar to running a small business. Researchers develop strategy, manage personnel and provide periodic reports.

Although most researchers aren’t formally trained in business, many of the skills necessary are already there. The challenge is getting researchers to see themselves as entrepreneurs.

Providing the Foundation

Hosted at Mayo Clinic this summer, the Walleye Tank was an event designed to educate, empower, and support entrepreneurs from Mayo Clinic, as well as the state of Minnesota. Using the show ‘Shark Tank’ as inspiration, the event was designed as a pitch competition for startups of all levels. The ‘junior anglers’ (students from the Mayo Graduate School) and ‘professionals’ (representatives from Minnesota startups) were each given two minutes to present, followed by questions from the ‘walleyes’ (judging panel). Winners were selected from each category. The pitches were followed by presentations from five ‘bait shops’ (groups that serve as resources for start-ups).

Stephen Ekker, Ph.D., the entrepreneur impresario of the Walleye Tank.
Stephen Ekker, Ph.D., the entrepreneur impresario of the Walleye Tank.

The Walleye Tank was the final piece of a Dr. Ekker’s class, Case Studies in Entrepreneurship. Taught through the Mayo Graduate School, the class was designed to give students all of the tools necessary to create a startup. While the class did include traditional offerings like reading and discussion, much of the students’ time was spent immersed in actual business startups.

For Alaa Koleilat, a student in the Mayo Graduate School, the class provided an opportunity to generate a business plan for a device her team was developing. Her team is developing a mobile app, GoAudio, to test hearing, broadening access to this service. While the team had the science covered, they had much to learn about the business side of a start-up.

“I knew nothing about business when I entered the class,” says Koleilat. “I learned a lot of concepts, but the most important lesson I learned from the class is the importance of collaboration. The more you talk to other people, the more you talk about your product, and the more you get feedback from others, the better.”

Refining the Skills

Office hours were hosted the morning of the event with entrepreneurial experts. Companies were given 30 minutes to discuss their idea, present their pitch, and gain valuable feedback before heading into the competition. For some, like Auric Sciences, this was the first time giving a formal pitch to potential investors.

“This was a great platform to present our idea,” says Luke Hoeppner, a molecular biologist and Assistant Professor from the Hormel Institute and presenter for Auric Sciences. “I’m used to giving science talks, but I needed to learn how to translate that into a short pitch.”

Auric Sciences, a company that uses a nanotech drug delivery platform to reach therapeutic targets in the skin, was one of the younger companies in the presentation. Participation in the event gave them valuable experience, publicity, and the chance to draw in partners.

For other companies, like Imanis Life Sciences, the Walleye Tank provided exposure. The company provides non-invasive imaging technology to support regenerative medicine and gene therapy. The Walleye Tank gave them a platform to showcase their success, share the technologies that they provide, and empower other scientists to pursue start-ups.

“Entrepreneurialism needs to be a grassroots effort,” says Kah-Whye Peng, Ph.D., a researcher at Mayo Clinic and chief operating officer of Imanis Life Sciences. “Many people have ideas, but they don’t know where to start. This kind of event helps start that conversation.”

Support from All Angles

Entrepreneurship can be a scary notion, but those who wish to pursue it are not on their own. There are a number of resources, both at Mayo Clinic and in the greater Rochester area that can provide guidance and support to researchers exploring the path of entrepreneurship.

One such resource is the Mayo Clinic Business Accelerator. The collaborative space located in downtown Rochester provides a place for startups to begin their business and connect with entrepreneurial experts. Dr. Frigola – a Mayo researcher turned entrepreneur – serves as a model for researchers looking to build their startup.

Other ‘bait shop’ presentations came from Collider, Techstars++, the Mayo Clinic Department of Surgery Innovation Accelerator, and Y Combinator. Their goals for participating were mixed and their resources appealed to companies at all levels. Yet, in discussion one common theme was clear – they were here to support the entrepreneurial culture that has started to grow.

“Entrepreneurialism exists in pockets right now, but many people are disengaged from this mindset for a variety of reasons,” says Jordan Miller, Ph.D., director of the Innovation Accelerator Program. “We want to start dialogue about how to reinvigorate this culture of innovation and increase awareness of the resources that are out there.”

A Cultural Shift

The Walleye Tank is just one piece of a greater mission – igniting an entrepreneurial culture at Mayo Clinic.

Innovation is nothing new to the culture at Mayo Clinic, but entrepreneurialism takes innovation to a new level. Developing a community that knows how to use and expand upon creativity can strengthen the existing research programs. Building the entrepreneurial culture will require researchers to take a risk and step outside of the comfort zone of their lab.

“Business is not about zero risk,” says Dr. Ekker. “It’s about is that risk worth taking. Give it a try. Let’s see if it’s worth something. Can you turn that idea into a real product that can scale and is cost effective and help a lot of people? I believe good businesses do make the world a better place.”

Kelly Krajnik, Business Development Manager at Mayo Clinic Ventures and walleye for the event, says she has seen signs of this shift over the last few years. They are seeing more people willing to take that risk of building start-ups. With Mayo Clinic establishing the Employee Entrepreneurship Program, Mayo Clinic employees are now allowed to disclose their technology and start a company themselves.

“I was really impressed with the sheer number of people in the room,” says Krajnik. “It shows how much of an appetite for entrepreneurialism and innovation there is at Mayo Clinic and in the greater Rochester area. It was great to see the creativity, excitement, and passion put into the event by all participants.”

Looking Ahead

In the end, GoAudio and Micrometer Genomics won the junior angler and professional competitions, respectively. With the success of the first event, Dr. Ekker has big hopes for the Walleye Tank in the future. The second Walleye Tank – Ice Fishing edition -- is already in the planning stages. He sees these events as one key piece of this greater cultural shift.

- Katie Cottam