Milan Mrksich– Farley Fellow Q&A
Milan Mrksich, Henry Wade Rodgers Professor in Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry, and Cell and Molecular Biology
Mrksich’s research combines synthetic chemistry with materials science to study important problems in cell biology. He is a co-founder of Arsenal Medical Inc., a medical devices company that has a stent product in clinical trials, and more recently co-founded SAMDI Tech, an early-stage technology company based on his new platform for analyzing biochemical reactions. Technology Review magazine named Mrksich as a "100 Top Young Innovators" in 2002.
Tell us about your current company, SAMDI Tech.
We have created the only high-throughput, label-free assay, which is a way to observe enzyme activities and that is very useful in the drug discovery process. We can measure enzyme activities without using fluorescent labels or radioactive labels. These label-dependent assays can take a substantial effort to develop and often are a bottleneck when the pharmaceutical industry screen an enzyme against a million small molecules. They budget about six months for that process. Our setup time is about a week.
Unlike my earlier companies, we started SAMDI Tech with zero investment; it was basically bootstrapped with just SBIR grants. And we had revenues within a quarter. By building the value, by demonstrating a functional technology before we've raised any money, we put ourselves in a very strong position. Part of the reason we adopted this model is we've gone through the more traditional models where you still have a percentage of the equity, but you also lose control.
What advice would you give to faculty or students who are interested in entrepreneurship?
View Milan Mrksich's faculty profileFollow your interests. The goals for an academic scientist or engineer are pretty clear: do significant research, publish in great journals, get awards, be invited to give talks at interesting places, be networked with other leaders in the field — that's a full-time job, especially pre-tenure. You see so many people who do what they're supposed to be doing just because it is expected of them in that environment. You see this with undergraduates, too — students who come into the university as a pre-med because their parent is a physician. I teach organic chemistry to the undergrads, and I meet a lot of these students. And you can see it right away — they don't have it in their heart, they’re not dying to be a physician, but they can't get out of the lane because that's the lane they started in, and they’ve been raised to think that if they change plans, it's a failure. My message is always, “It's a failure if you don't.”
The same conflict afflicts faculty. You've got to understand there's no right or wrong in terms of what you should be doing, what's to be respected more, what carries more weight. You've got a special training, you've got a great environment, you work with incredible people. What gets you excited in the morning? That's what you should be doing. I think culturally, people just get into setting their goals by what their field's culture expects.
When I talk to first-time faculty who are interested in starting a company, there's clearly a lot of apprehension that they won't be able to do it or they’ll fail. And make no mistake; many of these things will be hard to do, but they'll be easier once you get to the point of actually having to do them. I like getting something seeded in the lab because it's the “before-the-clock-starts” model. If you start something and you build a prototype and it doesn't work and you don't move forward with it, no one knows. It's always the case that once you get going, it's easier to take the second step, then easier to take the third. It's most important to find a way to take the first step. Start it, then see where it goes.
Another concern is failure — you have to learn to define it differently. A company closing down is not a failure. Every entrepreneur fails a number of times before they hit it big. Failure is like a series of degrees. That’s what puts you in a position to be successful. Anyone who's tried to start a company and failed, when they go to raise money for the next one, they are — with exceptions — in a stronger position to raise money because of their experience.
Have you found it difficult to “let go” once a company is up and running?
I think it’s a natural shift. Early on, your partners are calling you all the time about issues to get feedback. But with each round of financing, they get more sophisticated. They'll bring in some key people. Then you have to call them if you want to find out what's going on. When you get to that point, when you're not needed anymore, fantastic. The beauty is now that you get to go on and do the next thing, and you still have your equity participation, oversight — you're still attached to it, your stamp is on it, but you've now got really talented people who can take this forward.