My Columbia Classroom Is Not A Safe Place

Originally published in Forbes, Dec 11, 2015

Today is the last day of class for BIOT 4180, Entrepreneurship in Biotechnology. This semester was a bit of a departure from past versions of the course. Instead of the 400+ students I lectured to last fall, I chose seven particularly motivated entrepreneurs-to-be from a competitive process and put them through an interactive, highly participatory seminar aimed at preparing them to commit to an idea and grind through its transformation into a company.

You’ll never be irrelevant if your self-image is flexible enough to permit you to be a clumsy, stumbling beginner again and again, no matter how old you are or what you have accomplished already. So we all checked our egos at the door and agreed that while we would always be respectful and kind to each other, we needed to beat each other up a little bit too.

My students’ ideas were all good (sprinkled with brilliance, more accurately), but some were executable and some weren’t. Some were too broad and unfocused, a point we made not by saying “your idea is too broad and unfocused” but by questioning, detail by detail, how the idea would turn into a business, how its abstract value would be fed and watered through the concurrent communication, collaboration, proofs of concept, IP protection and funding processes. We had simulated elevator pitches where the emphasis was on consistent messaging, and simulated venture capital pitch sessions, with an emphasis on preparation, maintaining composure and tolerating questions whose purpose changed from extracting information about the business plan to extracting information about the knowledge base, honesty, and disposition of the presenter. Where did that number come from? What is the basis of that assumption? Doesn’t that contradict the prevailing wisdom? (Obnoxious get-under-your-skin questions like the last one only came from me, and were soon met with wry smiles and breaks from character.)

My classroom was challenging and (I hope) stimulating, but it was never intellectually safe. We challenged everything; no assumption was above challenge. I then doubled down on the challenging atmosphere by deviating from the syllabus without warning, giving no advance notice or formula for how the students would be graded, and — most provocatively — giving the final exam a week early, unannounced. If the process of entrepreneurship is unpredictable, shouldn’t learning entrepreneurship be the same way?

I cannot speak for the natural sciences, humanities or other disciplines, but the very idea of “teaching” entrepreneurship may be a contradiction in terms. The entrepreneur infers that he or she knows something that no one else does; or has the will to act on an idea that no one has acted upon, and can tolerate the never before navigated nature of their path. Is entrepreneurship in a classroom like learning a martial art from a book?

Without answering that question, we approached 4180 as an experience, not as a narrative. Whether or not the emerging approaches to ebola exposure prevention for healthcare workers, the in vitro modeling of joint injury, active management of the genomic predisposition to obesity, biomaterial design to prevent premature food spoilage, the use of crowd sourcing for the development of algorithms for earlier detection of rare diseases, detection of vitreous-based protein markers for the surveillance of cognitive function or platforms for finding an optimal bridge in the discovery to late-stage clinical development process for pharmaceutical that my students brought with them to the first day of class progress beyond our half-circle of desks (actually, several of them have already), the students will have defended their ideas, learned to critique themselves, navigated the unpredictable and unscheduled and shrugged off the unsafe.

It has been a privilege to share the experience with them.

bio fund manager, Columbia prof, ex-reproductive endocrinologist, roadie for @PriyaMayadas