Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Innovate & Incubate

As a youngster, I remember being glued to our TV when Ted Kennedy was called upon to deliver the eulogy for his slain brother, Senator Robert Kennedy. He said: “Some men see the world as it is, and ask why. Other men see the world as it could be, and say…Why not!”

I work in a building filled with start-up companies, 48 entrepreneurs striving to create transformational products they think have the potential to change the world. Part of my job is to help ensure that their dreams do not become nightmares. In the best of economic times, it is difficult to start a business from scratch; and grow it into a success, even a modest one. The odds against creating another Google are enormous. In fact, most new businesses fail by the end of their first year. I work in an incubator, Akron, Ohio’s Global Business Accelerator. Our city is now called the city of invention. Less than three decades ago, Akron was part of the Industrial Midwest that produced most of the nation’s passenger tires. When production moved south, the smell of carbon black vanished along with 40,000 manufacturing jobs. It became an almost overnight ghost town.

Not so today. The city reinvented itself. When B.F. Goodrich closed its doors in the early 80’s, over 2 ½ million square feet of factory & offices were left vacant. Today, it’s the home of some 100 small businesses, plus the mostly high tech start-ups we house at the Accelerator. It’s been my experience that successful entrepreneurs are doggedly persistent, and have a high pain tolerance… the kind that comes from rejection by lenders, investors, customers, vendors not to mention the sharpest of pain from a neglected spouse and children. To borrow a military metaphor, some entrepreneurs develop “foxhole friends” with other entrepreneurs sharing similar pain within our four walls. It is the other entrepreneurs who understand the dilemma and the pain, because they have walked the same pathway themselves.

What is particularly frustrating in this economy is a nagging sense of impotence. Good companies will not flame and burst in a grand explosion; but rather die slowly from inactivity…. They’ll just run out of gas…like a roadster that coasts to a stop in the middle of the desert, not knowing that he or she was just a few short miles from the finish line.

Had he been able to coast a bit farther to the next hilltop, he could have seen the destination. But he didn’t; and what remains are the nightmares from each unfilled expectation. One of our life sciences companies worries me most. This company has a potentially disruptive technology, one that could change the face of medicine. Long term prospects are really promising; but his angel investors are nearly tapped out; and I worry that, one day, he just will not be able to continue to run his business on “financial fumes.” He will have to try to support a family first and foremost. This technology with the promise to improve health outcomes, lower costs, and add quality of life to millions of Alzheimer’s patients will whither away, like the deserted and out of gas roadster in the desert. This is his day-to-day reality. With our collective help, we hope to help him pull a rabbit out of a hat from any one of a number of potential funding sources; and do it quickly.

My friend, Bill, not only “sees a world that could be, and says why not” he has done something concrete about it. He developed a product and solution that could help millions of patients live longer, healthier lives, while saving our health care system billions of dollars.

Someone once said that if an idea is good enough, you can always find the money to develop it. It has never been more important that right now to test the veracity of that statement.