Small Business, Big Science

Carl LeBel, PhD’89

Entrepreneurship is an attitude, one that Carl LeBel, PhD’89, believes is best nurtured in a small environment. He’s right at home as chief scientific officer at Otonomy, a development-stage specialty biopharmaceutical company in San Diego, Calif., that employees 25 people.

But being an entrepreneur wasn’t even on LeBel’s radar when he graduated from Northeastern with a doctorate in biomedical science. He thanks Northeastern and biotech pioneer Amgen for helping him develop that mindset.

LeBel originally studied forensic chemistry, but found himself inexorably drawn to pharmacology and toxicology. His adviser, Bob Schatz, who retired last year after 31 years as associate professor, encouraged LeBel to join his rigorous toxicology lab, where students were encouraged to poke holes in data and debate experimental designs.

“Northeastern has a fluid system in place to find your perfect fit,” LeBel says. “I learned how to become a critical-thinking scientist, and it all took off for me after that.”

LeBel joined Amgen when it had 1,500 employees and its cutting-edge entrepreneurial research on recombinant DNA technology was just taking off. By the time he left as executive director in 2007, Amgen was a biotech behemoth.

Along with that rapid growth, however, came less freedom to innovate, says LeBel. What he found at Otonomy? “The bigger risks and greater thrills of a startup.”

Natural entrepreneurs are drawn to small companies that don’t yet have a rigid corporate bureaucracy, says LeBel. “There’s an element of freedom and risk that comes with a smaller company.”

LeBel and his elite R&D team are developing new drug therapies for millions of people with hearing and balance disorders of the ear who have never had drug treatments available. And as an entrepreneur, he couldn’t have asked for a greater challenge.
In addition to the ongoing push to invent a pharmaceutical that can make a difference for patients and physicians, LeBel and his team must find ways to raise capital and navigate the complicated labyrinth of FDA drug approval. Accustomed to having to
operate nimbly, they embrace the challenge, rather than letting it bog them down.

And as an executive member of Northeastern’s Health Sciences Entrepreneurs, he’s training the next generation to thrive in such an environment, too. This group of alumni shares experiences with students and faculty and recently launched a mentoring program for alumni and students who want to start new health-science businesses.

 “My hope is to help other people find their outlet for innovation,” he says.

No One’s Business, Yet

Natalie Dickinson, AMD’16, a communication studies major

The path of the student entrepreneur is almost never conventional. Starting a business while earning a degree requires some serious fast thinking and perseverance.

But Natalie Dickinson’s entrepreneurial path was even more atypical because her venture, a wildly popular music blog called “We Are the Kids,” was never meant to be a business at all.

Blogging about the music biz—how to get into it, connecting people to opportunities, sharing stories and insider interviews—has been a labor of love that dates back to her high school days, when she launched the Tumblr blog.

Thanks to the robust network she built, she landed a series of career-building roles, including assistant box office manager at Boston rock club Brighton Music Hall and events promoter for New York City’s the Village Voice. She spent this past summer posting from throughout the U.S. while traveling with the music festival Vans Warped Tour.

Now Dickinson’s back at Northeastern, ready to turn “We Are the Kids” into a sustainable business with the help of Northeastern’s venture accelerator IDEA, and a few professors who’ve been impressed with the blog’s content and depth. In all, “We Are the Kids” has amassed more than 30,000 followers—fellow fans and industry pros alike—who turn to her as both a peer and a source for vital industry networking.

In upcoming months, Dickinson will develop a business plan for the blog, although she says she’s more interested in making money to put back into the site than she is in making a profit.

“So often, kids stop me at concerts to thank me for advice that connected them with a job opportunity,” reflects Dickinson on her past several years blogging. “I started this project trying to learn more about the industry and find internships for myself, so there’s nothing better than having people tell me I’ve made a difference in their lives, too.”

One Potato at a Time

Mike Behan, DMSB’13

Mike Behan is one of a growing number of entrepreneurs who see entrepreneurship as a powerful tool for social change.

Right now he and a group of partners are poised to help revolutionize Kenya’s agricultural economy. And all he needs are potatoes.

Why spuds? They’re the second most important crop in Kenya. Yet farmers produce 300 percent less than what they could due to blight and other diseases, and from the failure of low-quality seedlings. The result: insufficient food supplies and lost economic opportunities.

That’s where Behan and his social venture, The Potato Project, come in. Drawing from three previous micro-enterprise co-op experiences, he’s bridging economics, education, and technology to combat preventable obstacles to growing healthy potato crops.

His efforts and know-how are already paying off. Last year, thanks to local, on-site support from the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute and the nation’s Agricultural Training Center, The Potato Project completed a successful trial run. Behan and his team of seven provided 36 farming families with viable planting materials and crop management training, and enabled them to harvest collectively and directly to wholesalers. The families reaped a 300 percent increase in income.

Behan was thrilled. “The majority of the world’s poor rely on agriculture to increase income and opportunity,” he says. “It’s been incredible to help people create better lives for themselves and their families, and on their own terms.”

Now, with grant funding from Northeastern’s student-run venture accelerator IDEA, and support from Northeastern’s Social Enterprise Institute—for which he has been a longtime research analyst—Behan is returning to Kenya to expand the project to 162 farmers and their families. By next year, he plans to have 1,000 farmers participate; by 2016, he aims for up to 10,000.

“Social enterprise is my passion and my life—and it’s all because of Northeastern,” he says. “Before I came here, I had no idea that entrepreneurs could effect social change, and on such a global level. With the opportunities I’ve gotten through IDEA and the Social Enterprise Institute, I’ve been able to get my feet wet and make a meaningful impact.”

Power Player

Jeannine Sargent, E’87

Entrepreneurship, says Jeannine Sargent, E’87, is “a way of thinking. It’s how to use the information you have to improve a business.”

By that or any other definition, Sargent is an entrepreneur, and her current entrepreneurial challenge is Flextronics Energy. Recruited in January 2012 to serve as president of Flextronics International’s energy division, Sargent essentially heads a startup within a $24 billion Fortune Global 500 company.

Global demand for energy is projected to grow 18 percent per year compounded between 2015 and 2020. Yet renewable energy—from sources such as solar and wind—makes up less than 5 percent of all energy. The opportunity for growth is obvious, and Sargent is propelling her young company to take advantage.

Flextronics aims to transform the indus- try with products and services ranging from solar panels and energy storage, to energy-efficient LED lighting. And the company’s impact, in at least one high-profile application, will be visible in the most literal way: The San Francisco 49ers’ new stadium in Santa Clara will be powered by SunPower solar panels manufactured by Flextronics.

The Flextronics test is a natural fit, Sargent says, because the overarching theme of her career has been leveraging powerful technologies for emerging markets.

That has required a certain comfort level with solving puzzles, a trait that Sargent traces back to her youth. She recalls being eager to understand how things worked.

Later, as a chemical engineering major at Northeastern, co-op opened doors to new knowledge and opportunities. She credits co-op for helping her master business fundamentals and land her first job, with Massachusetts computer giant Digital Equipment Corp.

Most of all, says Sargent—who’s a member of the university’s governing board—Northeastern fed her entrepreneurial spirit, leading her to various posts in high-tech companies serving emerging industries. For example, she was founding CEO of Oerlikon Solar, a company that created thin-film solar panels. She also founded Voyan Technology, a company that designs software for communications networks using chip technology originally created for the Strategic Defense Initiative, aka “Star Wars.”

“I enjoy the entrepreneurship side of building a business,” Sargent notes—whether the environment is three people and a desk, or a bigger enterprise like Flextronics Energy.

 “Today,” she says, “this is an interesting place to be.”

>>Sidebar: By the Bootstraps