Startup MD: Group Aims to Help Houston Doctors Become Entrepreneurs

Xconomy Texas — 

Physicians are used to having complete authority when in an operating room, a command-and-control environment that doesn’t allow for deliberation or consensus.

That mentality, however, doesn’t work very well when it comes to entrepreneurship and building startups. “Physicians are terrible at entrepreneurship because they work in a bubble,” says Sudhen Desai, a Houston radiologist. “You need to collaborate and bring in others who have expertises beyond yours.”

The clash in attitudes often means that a practicing physician’s experience and expertise can be left out of the discussion when it comes to innovation in the life sciences. That’s why Desai is one of a group of doctors who have launched the Houston chapter of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs, a group that got its start at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine in 2008.

The association aims to bring together two seemingly disparate cultures. Physicians run businesses—their medical practices—but don’t know how to be entrepreneurs. “We want to close that divide,” Desai said recently at a wine-and-cheese launch party.

The first official chapter of SOPE, pronounced like the cleansing bar, started in 2011 in the Bay Area. Today, the group has 5,000 members across the world in 17 chapters. Houston organizers say it was about time the group had a presence in the home of the Texas Medical Center, one of the world’s largest.

In addition to the cultural challenges of getting doctors to think like entrepreneurs, the Houston chapter faces an additional hurdle: extensive migration into the city. Houston is one of the country’s fastest growing cities, which puts the burden on groups to seek out the newcomers who may not know to look for SOPE or other groups.

Michael Alvarez, who is the new Houston chapter’s vice president, came to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center five months ago to become the executive director of its Center for Professional Development & Entrepreneurship. He had been the director of Stanford University’s Medicine Career Center and was an active SOPE member in California.

“There is an entrepreneurial spirit here,” he says. “There’s wealth. Funding is around for good ideas, but management expertise of early-stage companies needs to be grown and developed.”

Doctors, Alvarez added, need to be coaxed out of their specific treatment roles and into working cooperatively with other physicians and service providers. “Time is so scarce,” he says.

Desai says he himself began seeing the same problems crop up over and over in his practice and wondered to himself: “There are problems here and I have solutions to these problems, but I didn’t know where I could go to get help and advice.”

SOPE, he says, can provide doctors with a likeminded group of individuals who can help launch ideas into the commercial space. Desai has not yet founded his own startup but says he is eager to help fellow physicians become entrepreneurs.

The group will have a formal launch event in September, a conference devoted to innovation in space medicine and health technology. As she encouraged attendees at the launch party to sign up for SOPE’s mailing list, Simrit Parmar, a physician and founder of life sciences co-working space Platform Houston, told the audience: “It’s about time people take notice of Houston.”