Merging Medicine and Entrepreneurship: UW Health Docs Share Lessons

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

[Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories on physicians at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics who have become full- or part-time entrepreneurs.]

By the time Hans Sollinger helped launch a company for the first time, in 2004, he had performed hundreds of pancreas transplants. In the process, he had built a reputation as a prolific surgeon whose experience few of his peers could match.

Sollinger, who practices at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, also known as UW Health, said that the high demand for his services over the years made his first foray into entrepreneurship somewhat jarring.

“It was just contrary to the mindset I had been in for years,” he said. “As a surgeon, you’re in a situation where if you have a good reputation, people are lining up to see you and they’re desperate for help. You don’t have to go out and sell or advertise or schmooze people.”

Sollinger is the co-founder of Insulete, whose aim is to commercialize a gene therapy for diabetes designed to get a patient’s liver cells to produce insulin. Insulete is one of several businesses based in and around Madison, WI, that physicians at UW Health had a hand in creating. Xconomy has examined some of these companies—and the doctors behind them—over the past three months as part of a special series.

The companies are a diverse lot. Some make devices you can reach out and touch; others create software code that lives only in the virtual world. Some make products patients can use; others are for healthcare professionals only. But in looking at all of their stories as a whole, a few themes emerge, and one in particular: The business world is fierce and unforgiving, and nearly every entrepreneur reaches a point where he or she can no longer go it alone.

“The medical skill set [physicians] have does not prepare us for the business world,” said Fred Lee, a radiologist who has co-founded three companies since 2002. “You need to have someone with experience usher you into that world. Otherwise, you’re like a baby seal among sharks. Those guys know what they’re doing. I couldn’t hold a candle to them.”

Two of the startups Lee has been involved with, NeuWave Medical and Elucent Medical, have brought on Laura King as CEO. King spent two decades working in the medtech industry at GE Healthcare. Lee said that her résumé and vision, along with the contacts she’s made over the years, made her an ideal choice to lead NeuWave, and then Elucent. Both companies make medical devices: NeuWave’s flagship product uses microwave energy to zap tumors; Elucent is seeking to commercialize a biocompatible wireless “tag” that would be implanted in breast cancer patients and used to monitor their tumors.

Lee said that King, and the specialized knowledge she brought to the two early-stage companies, highlight the complexity of the business world. That’s something most physicians underestimate, he said.

“Sadly, as physicians, we think of the business world as a generalized world,” Lee said. “I don’t know why, because our world is very sub-specialized. You wouldn’t have a radiologist trying to do cardiology. We’re used to calling in different specialists for areas that are even a little bit out of our expertise.”

Taking the point a step further, Lee said that he’s seen things get rocky for physicians who try to run companies.

“It’s the very rare doctor that can run a successful company themselves,” he said. “[There have been] crash and burn disasters where founders think that they have more business savvy than they do.”

There have been countless instances of co-founders hiring a CEO from outside the company after it’s matured to a certain point, as NeuWave did with King in 2007. The strategy is … Next Page »

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