Technology Commercialization and Startups

Dr. Fisher was interviewed for the Spring Edition 2010 of STC’s: Portal al Mercado, Door to the Marketplace.  See full text of his viewpoint:  (scroll to pages 8-9)

Here is an excerpt from that article about his view of the challenges facing leadership and young companies in technology:

Here is his viewpoint about the challenges facing leadership and young companies in technology:

As a business advisor to companies large and small, what do you see as the biggest challenges for young companies today?

The challenges today are little different than at any time in the past for young companies. One difference, of course, is that the economic environment is as difficult as it can get. New funding is much harder to come by. Investors expect a faster and surer path from concept to execution, and need more evidence of solid product and path to monetization. So, it’s harder to get that funding and when you do, there is no room for avoidable mistakes. You can make mistakes, that’s part of the sheer nerve of trying the unproven, but you have to be able to justify your plans, run a very tight organization, and operate with constrained resources.  The deals that investors make have to be carefully made.  Return on investment coming soon and predictably is measured and weighed carefully.  And, once the funding is in place, there is a surplus of talent waiting for every position in every young company and the line of competent candidates to fill them is long. That is the landscape for the early entrepreneur and inventor deciding how and when to begin or enter a start-up themselves.

I offer my usual words of caution, but with added emphasis these days, to uninitiated inventors who think they can be both the inventor and the CEO of their own start-up: you are likely to get eaten alive. Having seen this happen more than once, I can tell you it is not a pleasant experience. This bears repeating because it is so tempting to do and the lesson of failure so painful—it is a rare person who can wear both hats. Carefully delineated roles and responsibilities are essential for a company to succeed. Taking an idea and turning it into a product and going to market is a tough business and the choices that need to be made require excellent judgment and experience. Running a business is just as complex a task as being an inventor and has its own unique skill set

If an inventor or young company wants to roll out a new idea, invention or product, I say go for it.  But, get mentorship, strong counsel, survey the market, do a competitive analysis, use your early investment money wisely and be ready to move quickly.  And, by the way, you better have a very tightly run ship with low conflict and no wasted effort.  Remember that the purpose of business is business, not the organization, prestige and internal conflicts. There is no time, no tolerance and no bandwidth for anything short of excellence.

I would not say that the current economic environment is inviting, but if you are not feint of heart, there is room for success.  Be tough, be smart, and, for the inventor, be even more careful. I say to young companies welcome to the excitement of bringing great products into the marketplace in tough times. The products have to be excellent and make sense and the leadership of the company has to be as close to flawless as they can get. There is little margin for error. 

As a business advisor to companies large and small, what do you see as the biggest challenges for young companies today?

To run a company or govern a board of a technology startup or take IP to market, leaders need clarity, courage, humility, ability to delegate, and the ability to choose the right people when hiring and then supporting them to do their job. Create clear roles and responsibilities.  Make sure that if someone has a role that they also have sufficient authority to execute that role.  
Create a clear strategy and make sure that you and everyone else knows what it means. Then comes the work of executing that strategy. Strategy and execution have to be thought of as one and coupled.  Remember that the business of leadership is outcomes. That is how you are measured. Always keep that in mind. 
Make sure that every department in your company is in business with you. Legal counsel or legal departments have to protect and point out risk; the department has also to make sure it is a business partner that can point out measured risk attendant with true opportunity.  HR must be capable shepherds of compensation, promotions, development and must be certain to also be business partners on the senior team. HR also has to help the company and the CEO remember that the company is there to do business and not to mistake the organization and its complexity for the business itself!   Finance has to make sure that their key constituents are aware of the spend and the profit; their job is ensure “no surprises”, but they too must remember that business is entrepreneurial and profit is the goal.  They have to be ready to support another department head who follows the CEO and the Board’s direction to take risk even when that business risk turns out to create financial strain on the company.  All of the department heads have to work together with singular purpose to execute the company strategy effectively.

And, at the uppermost level of the company, the Board, strategy again is critical. There has to be absolute clarity between the Board and the CEO about the strategic intent of the company.  Expectations and timing, execution and measurement, performance and profitability have all to be aligned or a train wreck can be just around the bend.

Risk and opportunity management are the paired and paramount drivers that have to be watched and managed. Good strategy execution means that everyone from the board, the CEO and everyone in the company knows exactly how their job and daily work relate to the targeted outcomes of their company. You put that all together and companies excel.

And, when your IP is in the areas of medical device and pharmaceutical products the ante is raised. There is added complexity for these companies because there are cultural and historical values in these fields that become part of the driving force of decision making and balance of authority.  Also, regulatory bodies and patent issues and challenges are particularly important in relation to the inventions that we support.

You always have to remember that you have multiple stakeholders and know who they are, what they need and what you need to be doing in their behalf. The company has to come first.  Keep that in mind and you’ll be way ahead of the game.  That’s where hard work and integrity come  together.  Everyone involved has to think that way and that is both challenging and essential.

There are no short cuts here, but when businesses start with a sound concept, good leadership and well executed strategy, I see important ideas come to fruition, significant partnerships formed, products with value brought to the marketplace, profitability and great places to work created. Not everyone gets this right, but skill plus judgment, integrity and clear line of site to your goal and perseverance can get you very far. You have to mount quite an effort to do this well, but the accomplishment can be very worthwhile and the value generated significant.