10 Questions w/ Dave Mooney — Prof @ Harvard, Core Faculty @ Wyss, & Serial Entrepreneur
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Dave Mooney is a leader in the fields of biomaterials, mechanotransduction, drug delivery, tissue engineering and immunoengineering. He is interested in understanding how cells sense signals in their environment and how this alters cell behavior. His laboratory develops biomaterials that exploit these signals to regulate specific cells and their function. They were the first to demonstrate in 3-D culture that the mechanical properties of a substrate regulated stem cell fate. His lab also developed the first implantable biomaterial cancer vaccine that contained biochemical cues to recruit and re-educate the immune system to destroy cancer cells. Mooney’s goal is to use our knowledge of cell biology in conjunction with materials to boost therapeutic effects.
Mooney is the Robert Pinkas Family Professor of Bioengineering in the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a Core Faculty Member of the Wyss Institute at Harvard University. He is a member of several national academies and has won numerous awards for his research and his mentorship/teaching. He has published over 400 articles and has been issued numerous patents, several of which have been licensed to companies, resulting in successful commercial products. He is also an active member in major engineering professional societies, an editorial advisor to multiple journals, and serves on several industry and government advisory boards.
Learn more about Dave Mooney’s work on BIOS Podcast:
We sat down with Dave Mooney to ask his viewpoints on everything from entrepreneurial lab culture, what he looks for in new research topics, to advice on building companies…
What advice would you give to founders working with University Tech Transfer looking to spinout out a company?
“Talk to the Tech Transfer early on, so they understand you have an interest in forming a spinout (so they don’t start shopping the technology to established companies for licensing). Use the Tech Transfer folks as a resource to help get started, as they likely have significant experience with spinouts, and discuss what they are likely to look for in terms of a licensing deal. However, recognize their interests do not necessarily align with those of a new company.”
Can you describe your process for vetting new ideas to pursue in your lab?
“We do both translational and more basic research in the lab, so I’ll confine my comments to the translational work. I look for ideas that address a significant problem that can be reasonably well defined. The idea should provide a novel solution for the problem, as versus an incremental change to what has been pursued in the past. The approach to pursue the idea should either play to the abilities of the lab, or be something that we could readily address with the right collaborators.”
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How do you establish an effective entrepreneurial lab culture? What advice would you give to professors trying to entrepreneurialize their labs?
“First, create a culture where failure is not a negative but a normal part of research. Second, focus on defining the key experiment and performing in a manner that provides definitive data to support or refute the concept. Probably most importantly, ensure the lab members own their ideas and projects.”
Outside of academia, what is one seemingly random activity that helps make you a better researcher?
“Regular exercise — I think it is very important to relieve stress, to enable one to clear the mind, and come back with a fresh perspective.”
How do you identify the point at which a scientific discovery is ripe for commercialization?
“When the discovery has been validated in a relevant experimental model (often an animal model of disease in our work), the potential end-users of the discovery have bought into the concept, and there is a path to patenting the discovery.”
What advice can you give to academics raising their first round of venture funding?
“Clearly define the goals for the first round of funding, and the amount of funding you need to achieve.”
What advice would you give to business professionals looking to get in contact/help commercialize startups spinning out of academia?
“Check out the webpages of the Tech Transfer offices at leading research institutions, don’t be shy about reaching out to faculty as they typically like to talk about their work, and realize that most academics do not have much if any business experience or knowledge.”
What advice would you give to professors in balancing founding a company and continuing to pursue academic research?
“Recognize that starting companies requires significant time and effort over a relatively long period of time and this time will come from either the time you usually dedicate to your academic research or your time outside of the university. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about things you don’t understand, recognizing you need to figure out what balance of academic versus company time and effort is right for you. Realize that what is right for you may change over time — for example, when my children were young I decided to not engage in startup activity, but I had more time to dedicate to this later in my career.”
What has been the most helpful piece of advice you received throughout your career as an academic entrepreneur?
“Work with people you like to spend time with.”
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❤️ Thanks Andrew Yashar for your help in putting this together :)
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