in so many disparate areas—from humani-ties and political science to engineering and
the hard sciences. It is a place where highly
educated individuals are willing to work on
difficult problems for a very long time. That’s
how we can train students to succeed in the
real world, by crossing boundaries and talking to people in different departments to
really understand the bigger picture of what
they are trying to accomplish.
MC: What you said makes a lot of sense. How
do you select students with that in mind?
DW: I look for people who are willing to
take risks and go outside of their comfort
zone. I have a very diverse research lab. I
have students from the genetics department, computer science, students trained
as physicists, and of course chemists. I tell
students to embrace learning from everybody. I always ask a candidate to spend
some time in the lab talking to everybody.
Then, I ask my people if they think this person can work well in the group and has the
personality to enhance the group dynamics. I also look for people who are collaborative. We don’t welcome people who come
into the lab just wanting to work on their
project and do their own thing.
MC: I always say arrogance is our worst
enemy, in academia or in business, anywhere!
DW: Absolutely! We can do a better job in
conveying that, particularly in PhD programs. Historically, the PhD candidate
works by himself or herself on their thesis project; otherwise, it is not considered
independent research. This culture is absolutely the opposite of what makes an individual succeed in the commercial world.
In a startup company, no one works alone;
everyone works as a team to get products
out the door. Technologists have to understand the problem and then seek solutions
that can come from other disciplines.
MC: That’s a perfect lead-in to entrepreneurship. Tell us about Illumina, one of the companies you founded.
DW: Illumina is the leading company in
the world for genetic analysis. It has almost
3500 employees, will have nearly $2 billion
in revenue this year, and is providing prod-
ucts that are making a huge difference in the
world. I had 10 to 15 patents issued in the
fiber-optic-array space before I started the
company. It was very clear to me that the
technology had a competitive advantage
over everything that existed because of the
ability to multiplex. In addition, the ease by
which we were able to manufacture gave us
a very compelling pull in the marketplace.
MC: Any advice for would-be entrepreneurs based
on that experience?
DW: The most important lesson is to start
a company only when it is ready—not just
because you feel you have to do it. The other
important thing is the technical founder has
to realize that successful companies rely on
many people with different backgrounds.
We had spectacular financial people, business leaders who were able to identify markets and to come up with a strategy, not only
for financing, but were able to develop corporate culture. And we had a tremendous
engineering team that we brought in…it
is very much a team effort. As the technical founder, your contribution can never
be taken away from you, but as an entrepreneur you really have to let the experts drive
their area—not you—just because you are
the inventor of the technology.
MC: What about Quanterix?
DW: We wanted to show we could count
molecules to do analysis of complex biological samples. We have developed a transformative technology to detect things with a
thousand-times higher sensitivity—we are
able to count single molecules. There are
70 employees now at Quanterix.
MC: I want to know your vision of biology and
medicine going forward.
DW: I certainly think the next breakthrough
will be from combining the data that comes
from wet science with computational tools.
The marriage between science and computation will be transformative. We are at the
cusp of making dramatic discoveries on how
biological systems operate—to be able to use
that knowledge to create tremendous value
in healthcare. We are just beginning to see
such power with the information coming out
of genetic sequencing. «
This interview originally appeared in Laser
Focus World , 50, 8, 70–72 (2014).