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Rock solid science, passion help fuel successful startups

Entrepreneurs and scientists gathered at Stanford recently to discuss how to use scientific discoveries to launch startups and improve patient care.

Matthew Rabinowitz, PhD, a Stanford trained engineer and scientist, was already a successful entrepreneur when a family tragedy inspired him to bring his skills at building startups into the world of science and medicine.

"My sister had a baby with Down syndrome who died shortly after birth," Rabinowitz said at a conference held on the Stanford campus recently on how to build a successful startup. The family had no idea there was anything wrong prior to the birth.

The experience motivated him to co-found a startup that offers genetic testing for medical care, and provides women screening tests as an alternative to amniocentesis to learn of inherited or genetic disorders prior to birth.

The event, a collaboration between Stanford University School of Medicine and the European Society for Organ Transplant was a teleconference linking Stanford and Copenhagen that featured several entrepreneurs and scientists, a corporate lawyer who represents companies in the life sciences and a representative from the Food and Drug Administration who each shared their insights into how to build startups as a vehicle for bringing science innovation into medical care. Key tips included finding a project that you care about, recognizing how much hard work the journey entails, and being prepared for setbacks and failures.

Dean Lloyd Minor, MD, welcomed the two groups by discussing how important startups are for connecting transformative science from academic institutions like Stanford into products that can improve patient health.

"I think the focus of this conference today is very timely, and that is how do we get discoveries into the marketplace, how do we get discoveries from the laboratory into companies and ultimately more broadly to people," he said. "I think that's the key message: companies are never going to do away with the necessity of outstanding research at places like Stanford."

Speaker Randall Morris, MD, professor emeritus of cardiothoracic surgery at Stanford, worked both in the laboratory and in industry to develop new immunosuppressant drugs and help prevent patient rejection of transplanted organs. His advice was to think hard before you get started.

"We wanted to develop new drugs for transplant patients," he said. "I started out in discovery then moved to translational medicine then to development. I feel like I got a postdoc in pharma business."

What do you you need to know before you start? "You need to know the mechanisms of disease -- the pathways at the cellular, molecular level. These are questions you need to ask yourself before considering moving ahead. Doing a startup is difficult and very risky. You have to ask yourself is your lab data rock solid?"

Speaker John Piano, founder and CEO of Transplant Connect in Santa Monica, said he left his job as a corporate lawyer years ago when he discovered a problem he thought he could help fix. His goal was to improve the organ donor referral process so that more people who need transplants could get them faster. His solution was to automate the donor referral process, cutting down on phone calls and unnecessary paper work ultimately saving lives.

"I heard about the need for donations," he said. "Then I came across a research paper that ran through all this advanced statistical data which ascertained that there are a lot of potential donors being left out and not being used. It was a break down in communications that slowed down the process and caused delays."

"When I learned about these organ transplant problems it created my passion," he said. "If you don't have passion to carry you through you're probably not going to be able to persevere through the hard times. I never gave up."

Photo by Tracie White

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