Fostering Innovation in the Life Sciences

Apr 19, 2018

Q&A with Dr. Michael Cima, MIT

MassBio is proud to welcome Dr. Michael Cima, the newly appointed co-director of the MIT Innovation Initiative and associate dean of innovation for the School of Engineering, as our keynote for our upcoming event, The Convergence of Medical Devices and Drugs: Advances in Drug Delivery. We sat down with Dr. Cima last week to discuss his new role and the greatest opportunities he sees for innovation and entrepreneurship at MIT and the industry at large.

What does your new role as the Associate Dean of Innovation at MIT entail, and why is this work critical to supporting Massachusetts as the #1 life sciences cluster?

There are currently 85 different innovation and entrepreneurship programs at MIT in which thousands of students participate in. It’s a very popular topic for students and that’s why it’s so important to MIT – their success depends on our ability to make these programs and activities flourish. The MIT Innovation Initiative collaborates with all of MIT’s schools and programs to help innovators and entrepreneurs take their ideas out of the classroom so they can impact the world, and broadly has four goals:

Education: Students can minor in entrepreneurship and innovation, which includes both formal and informal education in this field. For example, hackathons are very informal events to work on specific problems, and both students and corporate partners can participate. Often, these are real problems a company is facing, and it gets a diverse group of people to think about an issue and learn how to structure a solution.

Ideas to Impact: The initiative is trying to enhance the translation of ideas from MIT to commercial practice, especially those tougher ideas that require a lot of capital, by looking at policies at MIT and other impediments to try to understand what they are and what we can do about them. For example, last week we shared a final report of The Engine Working Groups, who were tasked with finding ways to enhance translation of MIT to The Engine, a venture fund launched by MIT to help provide startups with funding, workspace, services, expertise and whatever else they need to commercialize ideas. My team’s job is to take that report and help other groups at MIT implement its recommendations.

Communication: We want to do a better job of communicating just how innovative MIT is. And do a better job in Massachusetts communicating how innovative the entire ecosystem is. We’re just getting started with but will be looking for partners on this.

Gender Equity and Translation: If you look at the female participation rate in MIT’s innovation and entrepreneurship programs it’s quite high, but when you look at next steps, how many startups are actually led by women, it’s a huge falloff. Realizing that there may be no better place to study this phenomenon than MIT – huge interest in innovation / entrepreneurship by women, yet we don’t realize companies that are started by women – we had to go about understanding why this is and doing something about it. With these 85 different programs, none of them are doing what they need to do to effect this outcome. While it may be out of our control, we need to know this. We’re at the hypothesis stage now and are reaching out to experts to try to figure out if we’re going to do an intervention or experiment, how would we isolate these potential reasons. We’re all optimistic. Women are starting and leading companies so we know it’s possible, we just need to know why is this happening.

What are the greatest opportunities for the next generation of innovators at MIT?

Our greatest needs, and those that we hope our innovators and entrepreneurs tackle, are part of what we call “tough tech” problems – those requiring large amounts of capital and long timelines. This includes drug/device combination products, biomedical and drug development – areas that are getting increasingly hard to compete with investment dollars that are going to quick hits. The MIT Innovation Initiative is focused primarily on solving some of the biggest problems we face as a society. It’s not just about making the next social media software – it’s about making this process more efficient and making it easier for early stage capital to exist. How can institutions work better together to achieve this?

What’s your advice to those looking to commercialize their ideas / science?

It’s not that the capital doesn’t exist. There are startups all over. What’s increasingly important is that at the earliest stages you go after the killer experiment, as it’s often easy to get into a program where you’re not de-risking, you’re just preserving and all that does is burn capital. You need to be willing to do the definitive experiment and it’s not always easy but can tell you whether you’re on that right track. And that may mean you prove to yourself that it won’t work but it’s better to do this early than late, because it’s ok if you fail as long as you fail early. My advice is to find that killer experiment, no matter how hard to come by, because it’s your job to figure it out, and investors will respect that attitude.

The real challenge then is to make it possible for these startups to spend capital on these killer experiments and not on infrastructure to uncover what the real value is. Having lived this I absolutely believe that’s what we need to do. There are things that have to be created in the ecosystem and then there are things that have to happen in institutions like MIT. We must ask ourselves what can exist in this complicated network of policies that address some of these concerns. And then we must change these policies.

What new trends or methods of startup creation are you seeing in the industry?

In past years, I’ve seen increasingly more effort by investors to nucleate ideas within their firms. Instead of letting entrepreneurs find them, they are increasingly realizing what unaddressed medical problems society is being faced with, and then they build these companies from inside the firm. And they’re now seeing quite a bit of success with this ‘new’ model (in reality, it’s been around for 10 years). At MIT, we let innovation emerge from our research labs but perhaps we should be going in and incubating these ideas in very much the same way, taking the lead from Flagship and Third Rock and others VCs doing this to some degree.


To hear from Dr. Cima directly, register for The Convergence of Medical Devices and Drugs: Advances in Drug Delivery!


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