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 a work in progress.

X: What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned about managing people?

EH: I think a lot of managers approach the way they communicate to their team in a “one-size-fits-all” approach. I have always put a lot of value on building very diverse teams—culturally, ethnically, gender, age, and experience. Diversity, in my experience, drives creativity and innovation on teams. But it also means that you will have a range of personalities and different ways that people optimally communicate and learn. As a manager, I have always tried to tailor how I communicate and interact with each member of my team to their preferred style rather than my own. I think it allows me to better connect with each of them and to get the most from them.

X: Tell me about your early influences.

EH: I was extremely fortunate to have amazing male role models while growing up. My grandfathers were both World War II veterans—blue-collar family men, with no college educations, who knew what a hard day’s work was and took pride in it. My father is a Vietnam veteran from the Navy who took the technical training he received in the military and got a job with a defense contractor after the war. He would work to support his family during the day and then go to school at night to get his college degree to better himself. Nothing was given to these guys: they worked hard and earned everything they ever received. I would like to think that I am making them proud by demonstrating their same work ethic in my professional life, and trying daily to be the best father, husband, and person that I can be.

X: As entrepreneur, where have you seen failure?

EH: Much of my career has been engaged with healthcare related startups and innovators. I was directly involved in starting and running five companies—two in therapeutics, one in clinical genomics, one in digital health, and one in robotics—where I helped write the business plan, raise the money, and served in either a board member or operational role. All of these companies have been successful and are still around today, including one that went through an IPO a few years ago.

When the companies faltered or hit a stumbling block, it was most often due to a disconnect in the vision, culture, or goals between the founding team and the operating team. In challenging times—and all startups experience challenges—these differences become magnified and tiny cracks turn into fissures pretty quickly. Now, I will not start, invest in, or join a company unless that unified foundation is there.

X: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

EH: I wanted to be a doctor-astronaut-professional baseball player. In high school, I realized I wasn’t a good enough baseball player. In college, I realized I was too tall to be an astronaut. In medical school, I realized I didn’t want to be “that kind of doctor,” so instead I earned a PhD in neuropharmacology. When I realized I didn’t want to be in a lab all the time, I discovered this entire field of translational medicine and commercialization of healthcare innovation. Now that I am running the TMC Innovation Institute, I am finally where I want to be. And I can still look up at the stars, watch the Red Sox, and dream.

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