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Having the right mindset is as important as the right idea for a startup

Dan Emerson

Regardless of industry, succeeding as a startup entrepreneur requires more than the right product and marketing strategy, particularly in a sector as rigorous and competitive as the life sciences. Founders of several successful life sciences enterprises offered some useful advice for developing the proper mindset to succeed.

For any startup entrepreneur, a strong belief in one's own mission and technology is essential to overcome the inevitable doubts along the way, according to Kim Popovits, co-founder and CEO of Redwood City, Ca.-based Genomic Health. Popovits, who left an executive position with Genentech to start her company, says facing a certain amount of uncertainty and self-doubt goes with the territory, especially in the early days of a new venture.

In 2000, when she left Genentech and started Genomic Health to apply cutting-edge gene technology to the burgeoning field of personalized medicine, Popovits recalls facing skepticism from colleagues not involved in the venture. “I remember comments like, ‘That sounds like a great idea but it doesn't look like that's going to happen for 10 or 20 years.’ When I was sitting at my desk with not a single email on my screen – something I hadn't seen in 25 years – I remember scratching my head thinking, ‘What have I done; how are we going to build this business?’”

For other life sciences entrepreneurs who may follow in her path, Popovits stresses the importance of “having confidence in yourself to take some risks, and not necessarily be afraid of failing. When we fail, we learn. With people around you who share your purpose and passion you can make amazing things happen.”

The company's lead product, the Oncotype DX® breast cancer test, has been shown to predict the likelihood of chemotherapy benefit as well as recurrence in invasive breast cancer and shown to predict the likelihood of recurrence in ductal carcinoma in situ. In addition to this widely adopted test, Genomic Health also developed the first multi-gene expression test for the assessment of risk of recurrence in patients with stage II disease. As of March 31, 2012, more than 10,000 physicians in over 65 countries had ordered more than 275,000 Oncotype DX tests.

While faith is important, it's not enough to succeed in the Darwinian business world, says Steve Blank, a retired serial entrepreneur who helped found and/or invested in eight startup companies in California’s Silicon Valley.

“We have to have vision, passion and faith; we have to be believers,” he says. “But, a mistake a good number of us make is confusing a faith-based enterprise with a fact-based enterprise. On day one, every startup is a faith-based enterprise. You need to turn that faith into fact as rapidly as possible.”

Successful life sciences professionals who are making their first venture into entrepreneurship need to guard against a tendency toward excessive self-confidence, according to Blank. “After several decades, we know one simple fact: no business plan survives first contact with a customer. As smart as you may be, you are not smarter than the sum of your customers. That can be really difficult for first-time entrepreneurs to understand – particularly for scientists and engineers who are ‘the smartest people in the room.’ Thinking we can pre-compute everything about our business gets a lot of us in trouble.”

Blank teaches entrepreneurship to both undergraduate and graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business, Stanford University Graduate School of Engineering, and a joint MBA class with Berkeley Haas and Columbia Business School. As an author and teacher, Blank focuses on “Customer Development,” a rigorous methodology he developed to bring the “scientific method” to the often chaotic startup process.

On the flip side, another common mindset that can prevent entrepreneurs from taking the necessary startup leap of faith is “waiting until you are ready,” according to Geoff Clapp, founder of the Palo Alto-based Health Hero Network, Inc., which develops and markets technology solutions for remote health monitoring and management.

In the life sciences, “We've seen startup culture turn into a story-telling activity. We like to talk about how hard it is. Are you ever going to be totally ready? The answer is ‘no’, but get started, anyway. If you have emotional intelligence and believe in something enough, you can weather the storm emotionally and go for it anyway.”

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