David Mahvi – Farley Fellow Q&A
David Mahvi, James R. Hines Professor of Surgery and chief of the divisions of surgical oncology and gastrointestinal and endocrine surgery at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine
Mahvi is co-founder of Medical Engineering Innovations, a company that commercializes new technologies to fight liver cancer with more effective tools. Regarded as a leader in the development of new biomedical devices, Mahvi sits on the steering committee for Northwestern’s Center for Device Development and is a mentor to BriteSeed, a medical startup founded in the NUvention: Medical Innovation course.
How did you decide to start your first company?
It wasn't something I was actually ever interested in. I was an academic — I had a basic science lab doing basic science stuff funded by the NIH. We were studying liver cancer and tumor growth factors. One day, one of my residents came to me and said, “I have this device this company gave me to test liver tumors." My reaction was, “Hmm, interesting. But that sounds kind of distracting from our basic science stuff.” And he said, "Well, you never know where this will go." That’s how it began.
You’ve started several companies since then. What lessons have you learned?
At one point, I was working with an orthopedic surgeon who was working with a company to do laparoscopic spinal fusions. We eventually developed a prototype, got FDA approval, and we did about 100 of these procedures. And it worked. It was cool that we actually developed something that was being used to treat patients.
View David Mahvi's faculty profileI realized that we had developed it, that we had all the expertise to do it. We didn't really need a corporate partner for this project, we just thought we did. We were the ones with the source knowledge of the clinical problem and how to approach it. But at the time, we had not done anything with the business part of it. We had no IP or agreements or anything. I learned a lot from that.
With the next startup, we knew we had to think about the business aspect. So we put together an agreement and got into a really nice relationship with a company. It resulted in much nicer partnerships, because we were working toward the same goal.
And that worked, I thought. That company did well and was eventually sold, but we retained some of the IP we developed. We used that IP to get an SBIR grant and started another company. That’s where we are now. The company is off and going, though it hasn't made much money — it hasn't made any money. We now have a prototype device, and we need more money to keep developing it.
What has been the most rewarding part of the work?
The cool thing, from my standpoint, is to actually develop something that's used in a patient. That's the ultimate goal as a clinician. I don't think that it's the ultimate goal of an MBA or something, but for a clinician, that's the ultimate prize. If you can develop something that's helped somebody, you've actually pushed the ball down the road a little bit, rather than having this theoretical thing.
We have basic scientists who are in the lab trying to understand basic biology like how enzymes function — really, really basic biology and really critical. You absolutely need people doing that. To me, the interesting part is the interface of that. It's great that you understand how the enzyme works, how to model flow in a hot tube, but how do you take that discovery and help somebody?
You work closely with the Farley Center and with NUvention, Northwestern’s suite of entrepreneurship courses. What do you see as the biggest challenge for new entrepreneurs?
The hard part of entrepreneurship is the idea — do you have a really good idea? Did you find a need? Do you have a good solution? Then it's about money. To me, the scary part is not the idea of the testing. That's exciting. The scary part is time, having limited resources. It's making a leap from, “I've come up with a solution. I think it'll work,” to “What do I do now?”
The interesting thing about NUvention is taking the engineers and getting them to develop a business plan, which is way out of their ballpark. But you put all these students in a room and give them a little background on the process, and they come up with ideas. Some of them are bad because they don't really understand the field or understand the clinical problem, but some of them are pretty good.
The piece of it I like is finding young faculty members or students and giving them the tools to go off and succeed. We're able to help some of the teams do some cool things. Obviously I have a day job, so I can't really take off and run a biotechnology company. I have too much other stuff to do. But I actually get a charge out of getting someone to that stage. One of my teams from a couple years ago, BriteSeed, is still humming along, living in the incubator. I think they sleep there. They've raised a lot of money. Just shows what really talented students can do with a little bit of help.