Five Questions For … Erik Halvorsen of TMC’s Innovation Institute

Houston—With one year of medical school down, Erik Halvorsen was well on his way to becoming a doctor when a realization struck him: He didn’t actually want to treat patients.

“I was much more interested in asking questions and I wanted to find answers to things that people never did before,” he says.

So, instead of getting his medical degree, Halvorsen ended up earning a doctorate from the University of Virginia—he studied neural pathways in Parkinson’s disease. But, still, he says the PhD career trajectory of doing research in a lab didn’t quite fit. “Being in the lab, it just didn’t move fast enough for me,” he says.

He laughs and adds that “two trips to the ER for lab-related accidents” told him perhaps he ought to reconsider the experimental life. “I stumbled upon an internship in tech transfer and got exposed to this whole idea of commercialization,” Halvorsen says. “I love the idea of making [the science] relevant, helping people in that way.”

That internship opened up a path that he says allowed him to stay connected with the latest life sciences research, but also more directly help patients. “If you’re doing great research but couldn’t figure out how to transform it into product, or a diagnostic, or a device to help people, what was the point?” he says.

Today, Halvorsen heads the Texas Medical Center’s Innovation Institute, an ambitious effort to nurture young health IT and medical device companies and, ultimately, elevate Houston’s healthcare community to take a place among the nation’s top biotech clusters.

Converting potentially life-saving research into actual treatments is also personal for Halvorsen. He saw first-hand how cutting edge treatments can impact lives following the birth of his daughter, Dylan, in 2008. A number of innovations once thought impossible—genetic sequencing, pediatric stents, and special patches to repair holes in her heart—were vital to her health.

“All of those things had to be invented and taken to the commercial path to market so doctors could have the tools to save her life,” he says. (Dylan’s now 8 years old and doing well, Halvorsen says.)

In our latest installment of “Five Questions For … ,” I spoke to Halvorsen about leadership lessons from his childhood, the need for growing companies to have a unified vision, and his unrealized dreams of playing for the Boston Red Sox. Here is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Xconomy: What leadership lessons did you get from your parents?

Erik Halvorsen: My father is a systems engineer and has worked on everything from military defense technology to air traffic control systems. His technical knowledge and proficiency was always impressive. He taught me that if you could become a subject matter expert, at much more than a cursory level, you would make yourself indispensable to people. Early in my career at Harvard, I really followed that advice and became the go-to person when it came to drug development and stem cells. I then added skills and experience in clinical trials, diagnostics, medical devices, and digital health—all of which is tremendously helpful as I advise companies in TMCx.

My mother was the organizer and the planner. Nothing was ever left to chance—there was always a plan, a schedule, and deadlines. Although this was not always my strong suit, I can say that whatever organizational skills I have, I got them from her. That’s still … Next Page »

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