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10 Questions w/ David Walt — Prof @ Harvard / Faculty @ Wyss Institute

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David Walt

David Walt is the Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Bioinspired Engineering @ Harvard Medical School, Professor of Pathology @ Harvard Medical School & Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Core Faculty Member of the Wyss Institute @ Harvard University, Associate Member @ the Broad Institute, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor, & is co-Director of the Mass General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation.

Walt pioneered the use of microwell arrays for single-molecule detection and genetic measurements, which has revolutionized the process of genetic and proteomic analysis, enabling the cost of DNA sequencing and genotyping to plummet nearly a millionfold in the last decade. Walt is the Scientific Founder of Illumina, Quanterix, and has co-founded multiple other life sciences startups including Ultivue, Arbor Biotechnologies, Sherlock Biosciences, Vizgen, and Torus Biosciences.

His lab develops new diagnostics tools and new biomarker assay technologies based on single molecule detection that can address unmet clinical needs in diagnostics. The lab is focused on early detection of breast cancer, detection of active tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, and diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases, His lab has also been deeply involved in developing new tools to understand and diagnose COVID-19. Walt’s lab also pursues fundamental research on single enzyme molecules to provide insight into enzyme mechanisms.

He has received numerous national and international awards and honors for his fundamental and applied work in the field of optical microwell arrays and single molecules including the 2021 Kabiller Prize in Nanoscience and Nanomedicine. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and is inducted in the US National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Learn more about David Walt’s work on BIOS Podcast:

We sat down with David Walt 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?

“Both the founders and the tech transfer office should understand that both parties are bringing something to the table and neither should be greedy. It is best to structure a license where the university shares the risk and reward. They shouldn’t ask for exorbitant upfront license fees but should structure the license such that if the company is successful, they share in the riches through both royalties and equity.”


Can you describe your process for vetting new ideas to pursue in your lab?

“They need to be impactful and not just something that will lead to a paper.”


How do you establish an effective entrepreneurial lab culture?

“Empower people to pursue their interests and passions. I consider myself a research advisor, not a research director. If lab members work on projects they are interested in, they are more motivated. Also, I encourage collaboration.”


What advice would you give to professors trying to entrepreneurialize their labs?

“Don’t force things. Every project and discovery isn’t worth patenting or commercializing.”


Outside of academia, what is one seemingly random activity that helps make you a better researcher?

“Fishing. Gives me time to think, gain perspective, and (of course) be patient.”


How do you identify the point at which a scientific discovery is ripe for commercialization?

“It’s obvious. I think many researchers fool themselves into believing something is worth commercializing and they can usually find investors who believe them. But in the end, you have to know deep down that it solves a real problem and that people will pay for the solution.”


What advice can you give to academics raising their first round of venture funding?

“Choose a value-add VC, one that brings more than just cash to the table. Also, don’t be greedy. It takes a large team to successfully take an invention to commercial success. There are well-established standards for scientific founders in terms of how much equity they should have. If you don’t educate yourself, you are negotiating from a position of ignorance.”


What advice would you give to business professionals looking to get in contact/help commercialize startups spinning out of academia?

“If you were successful at a big company, you have a lot to offer to a startup but also a lot to learn.”


What advice would you give to professors in balancing founding a company and continuing to pursue academic research?

“Establish bright lines. You need to make a decision about spinning out the discovery/invention or continuing to work on it in your lab. If you aren’t willing to give it up, you shouldn’t found a company yet.”


What has been the most helpful piece of advice you received throughout your career as an academic entrepreneur?

“The best advice I received was just before Illumina went public and I got a fantastic piece of advice about watching the stock price. Think of it like being on a boat. If you look at each wave, you will get sick. Keep your eye on the horizon.”

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❤️ Thanks Andrew Yashar for your help in putting this together :)

Alix Ventures, by way of BIOS Community, is providing this content for general information purposes only. Reference to any specific product or entity does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation by Alix Ventures, BIOS Community, or its affiliates. The views expressed by guests are their own and their appearance on the program does not imply an endorsement of them or any entity they represent. Views and opinions expressed by Alix Ventures employees are those of the employees and do not necessarily reflect the view of Alix Ventures, BIOS Community, affiliates, and content sponsors.

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