To MBA or not to MBA: is that the question?


“What kind of CEO do you want to be?” That question still rings in my head.

It came after a meeting with a CEO that I’d attended with my dad, one in a string of meetings to match small biotech and health tech companies with potential investors.

My dad, an investor, was letting me flex some muscle. I had hopped straight from earning a PhD in biomedical engineering to consulting at McKinsey – and now, I knew just the questions to ask: if it was a cell therapy or biologic, I’d hammer them on manufacturing or the regulatory process. If it were a device, I’d ask about IP or competition.

Over time, I noticed a pattern in the answers. If the CEO were, say, an MD, he or she would demonstrate less fluency with the financials. And if it were a lawyer at the helm, I’d note the micro-stuttering of a person for whom technology was a “second language” – in other words, someone who’d been taught (rather than having developed) the technology’s mechanism of action.

What I was intuiting from those meetings, it turns out, was the weak spot common to any technologically-based venture: the gap between technology and management, between science and business. This is a language barrier as formidable as any other. Like the gaps between other spoken languages, it blocks understanding within biotech companies, impedes their progress, and is difficult to overcome. Indeed, the deeper a company’s chasm, the more reluctant my dad was to invest.

At that moment in my career, the struggles I witnessed in these smart, capable, committed CEOs fueled a personal transformation. I had joined McKinsey after my PhD because I was hungry to learn more about the wider world of healthcare, beyond the laboratory. While there I quickly appreciated the dazzling “30 thousand foot view” that large consultancies offer into the worlds of national healthcare systems and large pharma companies. I also appreciated the humanizing exposure I was given to the elite individuals influencing these forces around the globe. However, I found myself hungry for exposure to a view closer to the ground, off the “patent cliff.”

I’d noticed a pattern captivating many of our clients as their patents were expiring and they were looking for future sources of revenue. Leading-edge technologies, more and more, were to be found in smaller companies, based on science that had been discovered in academia. Technologies like CRISPR and Emulate Bio are recent examples of this type of technology – and high valuations hint at our expectations of the potential of these technologies. At McKinsey, these types of companies came up in our analysis when we were charting pipeline development or identifying potential acquisition targets for our clients – but I was hit with a case of professional jealousy; I wanted to be part of THAT story – to power down the PowerPoint and take up the pipette again. But I was also at a crossroads, uncertain about my next move.

So when my dad asked me that question — “What kind of CEO do you want to be?” — it gave me pause. I knew I didn’t want to be like the MD who got nervous when peppered about his cash forecasts. Nor did I want to be the executive who strained to explain the gritty details of the technology. I craved the authenticity of being close to the science.  The truth was that I wanted to straddle the border of business and science, to speak both languages in the entrepreneurial hotbed of innovation that was then emerging. If I wanted to thrive on that frontier, I realized, I had to be bilingual.

Yet I couldn’t move forward until I figured out: As a scientist who wanted to turn cutting-edge biotechnology into a business, did I also need an MBA?

Countless others in a new generation of bio-entrepreneurs today are confronting the same question.

Science and business are not opposites. In fact, there are lots of parallels that have been highlighted between the entrepreneurial process and the scientific method. Steve Blank’s lean Launchpad methodology, which highlights the value of “getting out of the building” and testing hypotheses of your business model by observing and interacting with customers, is an example of just that. And yet, while both pursuits hinge on uncovering knowledge, the entrepreneurial journey must test its hypotheses in much murkier conditions and with far less control over key variables! Besides the nitty-gritty details of cash flow and growth strategy, business leadership also demands different ways of thinking.

Luckily for me, the very lab I’d left at Columbia University, led by Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, was a kind of self-made incubator. (It has now spun out three companies in the past three years, including the one I cofounded, EpiBone). I returned there to continue my work in tissue engineering, and also cultivate my own skills for becoming an entrepreneur. And in so doing, I ventured into uncharted territory: a parallel path of postdoc plus executive MBA.

The intensive learning I did on that unconventional path, and the way it shaped my entrepreneurship, contains lessons for any bio-entrepreneur considering his or her future. Among the revelations that most startled me were:

  • 80-20 rule: the time it takes to get to 80% certainty takes 20% of the effort – so we should ask ourselves, how much is that remaining 20% certainty worth to us, given the tradeoff in time/resources, when information has a fast expiry date and we want to use the information before it gets “stale?”
  • you can publish your playbook, but it’s all about execution: this directly conflicts with what we think we know about science, where we in fact publish our methods in the hopes of validation via reproducibility!
  • There can be methodologies applied to understanding “mystery” (such as formulas for creativity and intuition) and yet we shouldn’t be fooled by the presence of a lattice of concepts into thinking that any method can’t be used (or abused) – faulty assumptions can topple even the most intricate houses of cards – The Big Short is an example of this.
  • And not every type of technology needs the same type of CEO – companies at the prototype phase need different types of leaders than those who scale, and those who can turn around a company with slagging performance.

These insights proved invaluable when, in 2014, my co-founder Sarindr Bhumiratana (another post-doc from Gordana’s lab) and I and hired ourselves out of the lab and into EpiBone, which we co-founded with Gordana. Building on work that began in her lab, our company uses a patient’s own stem cells to grow personalized, custom-shaped bone replacements for people with injuries or birth defects. Even in our earliest days, I discovered that the fluency I’d gained in the “foreign language” of business built credibility and opened doors as we approached raising our first funds, negotiating our first license agreement (EpiBone’s first IP was developed while at the University), found our first lab space, and hired our first employees.

And although it’s still very early days for us (we’re in pre-clinical development), the additional benefits of business school are continuing to reveal themselves in numerous ways. There is, for instance, the incomparable power of community. Columbia classmates, professors, and alumni have become confidants, vendors, and investors (including Dean Glenn Hubbard himself, who was my entrepreneurial finance professor). Less measurably, but just as importantly, my business training enables me to get “dangerous” — to learn enough about a topic to know whom to ask when it gets time to employ it. For example, knowing when it’s time to build a DCF model and knowing what skills to look for when hiring a CF guy/gal. And also knowing, critically, that any model can be either “used or abused.”

What kind of CEO am I? Through the many case studies in my MBA program I was exposed to examples of different types of CEOs – and I learned that there are many formulas for success. There are introverted and extroverted CEOs, those who specialize in technology development or those who can turn around a failing company. There are those who analyze their way into new frontiers, and those who employ intuition. There are those who delegate, and those who collaborate. One of my favorite examples was that of CEO of JetBlue delivered potato chips on every flight he took, and I try to emulate this by doing “internships” with members of the team, although they’re careful not to let me mess anything up! These examples also helped me appreciate the value of good leadership throughout good organizations, and not just at the top: ultimately, we’re all “CEO of something” whether that’s our teams or our workstreams, and it’s up to us to guide ourselves towards the best match for our skills and desires. For this reason, even though we’re only a team of eight, we’re working with leadership coaches both individually and as a group.

Ultimately, classes like Starting and Running an Entrepreneurial VentureLean LaunchpadStrategic IntuitionPersonal Leadership and Executive Leadership helped expose me to new skillsets and develop them in the classroom. But perhaps most importantly, helped me develop appreciation for my own unique passion, skills and perspective (or “only-ness”). I learned that my own entrepreneurial journey has been fueled by a dual desire to use technology to improve people’s lives, and to embody the joy that purposeful work can bring (or, in business-speak: I’m a technical founder with a blended “inner scorecard” and “outer scorecard” – and a yoga practice!). If we can look back years later and say the EpiBone team has succeeded in bringing our technology to patients, I know that we will all be able to thank my business training for helping me in my CEO journey these early days.

Does all of this mean that scientist-entrepreneurs absolutely must have an MBA to succeed? The answer for many may be yes. However, there are many paths to gaining the skills and lessons that MBA programs offer, with or without a formal degree. Grassroots entrepreneurial communities offer classrooms and closed-door meetings that mirror many of the benefits of traditional MBA programs. Business books, blogs and videos provide many forums for exposure to concepts, and personal leadership coaches can provide confidence.

Your own education might take any of these forms. But whichever path you take (or make), don’t neglect that education. As I’ve found, you’ll need it. Biotechnology is not a monolingual business.

The real question, in the end, is not “to MBA or not to MBA.” Rather, it something far deeper and more personal: “What kind of CEO do you want to be?”