It’s the problem, stupid!

Nature Biotechnology

August 7, 2012

By Tillman Gerngross

Almost 20 years ago, Bill Clinton re-energized his floundering election campaign by refocusing the electorate's attention on the sagging economy of the early nineties while deflecting criticism directed at his lack of foreign policy experience. His slogan, “It's the economy, stupid,” entered the vernacular to remind us to focus on those things that really matter.

As a bioengineer and entrepreneur, I find this slogan applicable to the many choices one has to make when founding and building biotech companies. As academics, we often choose problems in the way greyhounds choose their prey: if it is fuzzy, white and moves fast, it ought to be a rabbit worth chasing after.

But in the commercial world that is not so—just like many problems are not worth solving or cannot be solved by the particular discipline we are trained in. Often our skills dictate the problems we focus on, and we disregard the quality of the problem we are trying to solve. Even worse, we often choose problems that are not real problems at all but rather convey the impression of something 'big' or important—I would venture to say that synthetic biology, whatever that may be, is a good example. To some it is the hottest new thing; to most cognoscenti it is simply a public relations stunt with a cool name, a solution looking for a problem, the rebranding of something that has been around for several decades (cell and metabolic engineering).

As basic scientists, our impact is measured by generating new knowledge and advancing our understanding of how the world works. The challenge of the entrepreneur is different: absorb that information, process it and synthesize something new that serves relevant human needs (beside our own job security). As such, a bioentrepreneur's influence on society is governed not only by technical knowledge alone but also by understanding human needs. In particular, one must have the insight of when, where and how a particular technology can make a difference. In other words, not all problems are worth solving, and your job as a bioentrepreneur is to figure out which ones are. I learned this lesson the hard way.

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