From Fledgling Idea to Entrepreneurial Fruition

Submitted on February 8, 2021

By Elizabeth Labiner

Graduate students are a wellspring of innovation. Whether in teaching, research, or application, graduate students are often on the cutting edge of new theories and technologies. Some students implement their ideas in the classroom or the lab, while others find their work will best thrive in a nonacademic setting -- or, of course, it may have relevant applications in many fields! 

Elizabeth Johnson, a former pediatric research nurse and PhD student in the College of Nursing, entered the entrepreneurial realm to address a problem in the field of medicine. In the course of her work, she witnessed poor care decisions being made due to a lack of shared information on patients’ medical history, particularly if they were participants in medical trials: 

When I was a pediatric research nurse, I had a child (clinical trial participant) who saw an external provider for care. The provider unfortunately administered medication that interacted with the investigative medication we were giving as part of the research study. We had to remove the child from the study, causing great distress to our team and the family, since the child had been showing marked improvement in their condition. It was after this participant removal (and others that occurred in other positions and organizations) that I knew I had to be part of the solution and find a cost-effective, easy means of addressing the quality and communication chasm.

As a result, Johnson began an entrepreneurial project that uses common technology in a wearable medium in order to allow clinical trial participants to carry key information about their research involvement to providers outside of the research team. Often, this takes the form of a USB device, which can be worn as a wristband and encrypted as a mobile research record. Johnson explains, 

Our current healthcare system has low interoperability, or inter-communication, between organizations and their Electronic Health Record platforms. Because of this low interoperability, a patient from Colorado seen in an ER in Florida may not receive comprehensive care as the ER providers may not have access to medical history. Clinical trial participants, particularly children, may receive investigational medications that would interact poorly with standard medications given in urgent or emergency care capacities.

Even within the same network, though, communication lapses and gaps may exist. The child who inspired Johnson’s work was seen by a provider in the same organization that was conducting the research trial, but information on the child’s participation still wasn’t properly conveyed. Johnson’s solution is to seek visibly identifiable means of alerting emergency providers to the unique care clinical trial participants need, as well as to give physicians a means to access anonymized information on the trial. The increased informational access decreases the chances of dangerous interactions between medications. Johnson notes that participants who have been given interacting medications are typically removed from the study in which they were participating, which can deprive them of potential benefits of the trial. In addition, withdrawals mean the FDA receives less data on which to base drug approvals, and fewer opportunities exist for patients who seek trials as a way to access new advancements that could help their condition.

Johnson’s exciting work is only one example of the range of entrepreneurial work at UArizona; graduate students in myriad fields are creating inventive solutions to any number of problems. So what do you do if you’re a graduate student with an interest in entrepreneurship?

Marisol Flores-Aguirre, a lecturer and Mentor in Residence at the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship in the UArizona Eller College of Management, says that one of the first things a budding entrepreneur should do is begin running their idea by as many people in their field as possible in order to assess its feasibility and usefulness. She says, 

When diving into entrepreneurship you can’t be shy; you have to speak with many folks and ask for feedback on your idea from whoever will give you time. It’s important that this not just be friends and family -- though of course you need them for moral support! But if you really want to find out what people think, you have to expand who you are talking to and also give them an opportunity to engage with your product or service, even at a minimal level. Social media is a great tool for this! There are design tools that you can use to introduce the product or service before it’s even truly a thing to start to engage with that consumer.

Johnson is doing just this with her project. She began by bouncing her idea off some colleagues in the clinical trial industry, which led her to create mock-ups of possible designs, which she then presented to her advisor, Dr. Carrington. Dr. Carrington encouraged her to delve into literature and complete a feasibility study using a commercially-available wearable USB wristband, which individuals would wear for three days before reporting back on its usability and functionality. Johnson’s findings from the feasibility study were promising, leading to design changes and talks with TechLaunch. Johnson will soon present the current prototype to nurses in her dissertation study to gain more feedback from caregivers who would encounter this device on patients in the urgent care or emergency care settings.

The second major aspect of vetting a new idea, Flores-Aguirre notes, is figuring out if and how the project will make money. “This can be uncomfortable to think about,” she acknowledges, “but if you’re going to be a viable venture, then you have to figure out how to monetize what you are doing. Be realistic, conservative even, in your initial assumptions. Ask: how big a risk can you take? Will you be bootstrapping? How long until you turn a profit? All these questions are going to be critical to helping determine if you and potential partners will want to move forward.”

If you’re thinking about an entrepreneurial endeavor, says Flores-Aguirre, it’s crucial to know your own strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and to surround yourself with folks that can balance one another in skills, thinking, capacity, and aptitudes. Building a team is important for entrepreneurs and collaborating with others will make an enormous difference. She advises, “If you have an expertise in accounting but none in marketing, look at your networks and see who you can recruit. Same with finance, or MIS, or tech. The strongest, most competitive teams I’ve worked with are composed of folks from a diverse range of skills, interests, background and cultures.” 

She also encourages graduate students to be flexible and tenacious while they work on becoming entrepreneurs, to expect constant change, and to be ready and willing to accept feedback and evolve your project on the basis of criticism you receive. Flores-Aguirre warns,

You’ll be tired, a lot. But your passion and enthusiasm for the venture will push you through. Make sure you have a support system that you can lean on for those especially difficult moments. On that note, no one will work harder than you on the venture. You will have to be the CEO, the CFO, the marketing team, the administrator, the custodial team, for a while. So keep that in mind. Entrepreneurship takes work; be prepared to work harder than you’ve probably ever had to.

While you can learn and practice necessary skills through classes and programs such as the New Venture Development course, she feels that diving in and learning through experience is a vital aspect to entrepreneurship. And, she says, bringing your vision to life will be thrilling and rewarding: 

Don’t forget why your venture exists. Gone are the days where maximizing shareholder wealth is the only priority of the company. Challenge yourself to think through what benefits your venture will make on society and the planet. What will your legacy be? Think boldly about what impact you hope to make! 

Graduate students are making brilliant contributions and sweeping changes -- and we can’t wait to see what our community will produce next.