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Atul Butte: Biotechnology entrepreneur on success and failure

Christina Hernandez Sherwood, eMed Editor, MedCity News

As a biomedical informatics researcher and biotechnology entrepreneur in the Silicon Valley, Atul Butte has big ideas for the future of life science entrepreneurship. His Butte Lab works to solve genomic medicine problems through new developments in translational bioinformatics.

From advancements in DNA sequencing and the genome to the sheer volume of scientific data on the internet, including digitized samples of disease, now is the “most amazing time” to be in the biomedical field, Butte said. And with companies available to test drugs or run diagnostics for entrepreneurs with a credit card, he said, there aren’t many barriers left to getting started. “Maybe we could start the next Genentech or Biogen Idec or Amgen or Pfizer in a garage,” Butte said. 

Butte, a professor and division chief of systems medicine in the Department of Pediatrics at Stanford University, spoke at the FutureMed conference last month. Here are his tips for success as a life science entrepreneur:

Use local resources to find unmet need – Entrepreneurs should attend grand rounds at hospitals and academic centers in their communities, Butte said. “Listen to the top scientists in the world that are visiting or locally available there,” he said. “Listen to them explain the challenge in that cancer or this metabolic disease.” Entrepreneurs should ask themselves: “What do physicians need? What are healthcare providers still looking for?”

When failure isn’t your fault – Butte has started several companies during his 15 years in the field. Some, he said, simply didn’t work out. “Sometimes the reason why companies fail is because you’re too ahead of your time,” Butte said. “That’s a very frustrating reason to fail. But sometimes, you see a vision and others still have a hard time catching up with the previous vision.”

Seek government grants – Life science and digital health entrepreneurs should look to the National Institutes of Health for funding, Butte suggested. “The NIH gives us money to start small businesses in this field,” he said. That special pot of money is designated for small business innovation research. It’s not a perfect funding source, Butte said, but it could be enough to get many entrepreneurs started.

Seek counsel on regulatory issues – Once a life science company is ready to move forward with its drug or diagnostic, Butte said, regulatory approval is a necessary next step. “Regulation is a fact of life because patients need to be protected,” he said. To make the process less stressful, Butte said, entrepreneurs should bring in consultants who are well-versed in regulatory issues. One option is to partner with a local law firm. “It’s hard to learn from just reading websites,” he said.

Photo: Atul Butte / Courtesy of Lucile Packard Children's Hospital

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