Entrepreneur Q&A: Ted Fjallman

  • Posted on 16 August, 2016
Real life stories from synthetic biology entrepreneurs at different stages of their journey. Want to know what it's like to be an entrepreneur? Read on…

Q: What is your background?

A: Scientist – I liked physics and genetics, but I was already interested in business and communication (and history) at a young age. I specialised in Molecular Biology and Immunology (PhD), but then went to work at a think tank to do strategy consulting for a while. Early in my career I changed jobs and sectors quite often and I think that was healthy for me, before settling into something I really wanted to focus on.

Q: Why are you doing what you do?

A: Because it’s challenging and I love to prove that something difficult can be done. Vaccine development also saves lives. I support the notion that ‘prevention is better than cure’, and I really want to prove that my team and I can develop products that many people need or want to buy.

Q: What is your definition of synthetic biology?

A: I have a very broad definition of it now; namely any application whereby a living system has been created or modified to do something it did not evolve to do. In many ways SynBio is for me just an extension of biotechnology and refers more to a mindset of the researchers and product developers rather than an actual difference in techniques used in biotech. This new mindset is all about thinking like a designer or engineer who knows what they want to achieve and figures out the parts needed to get there. As much as I want us all to be able to be ‘genetic engineers’ rather than ‘molecular biologists’, I still think we are far away from actually predicting biological systems and their interaction with each other (e.g. drug interaction with body), so that most product development today still has to rely on trial and error… but I hope we achieve true, versatile ‘engineering biology’ in my life time!

Q: What is your definition of entrepreneurship?

A: I think it literally means ‘taking on something’, and my personal definition is that it’s about taking on a challenge that most others would not dare to or that most others think is not possible. It’s a bit like ‘exploration’ but with a mindset that whatever you are seeking to find is not already there – it’s a very creative endeavour!

Q: What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?

A: I didn’t. Every child is an explorer and creative ‘maker of things’, I was simply lucky enough not to lose that along the way.

Q: So what would you say are the top 3 skills that are needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?

A: Vision, realism and hard work/perseverance. First you must believe your dream is possible, then you must modify your dream to fit reality as you go, and finally you must ruthlessly discard all really stupid ideas and work really hard on that which counts. To find out what counts you have to be a good listener or good interpreter of market analyses, if I may add a fourth skill.

Q: What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?

A: When I’m able to convince others to also believe in my dream, either through convincing them that the concept is sound, or by proving my team and I can make a great product that they then pay for.

Q: What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?

A: In general, I’m inspired by people and organisations that go against the grain. I’m specifically impressed by people who can turn something that is seemingly failing (e.g. a company close to bankruptcy) and turn it into something thriving (e.g. a profitable company that provides a product or service people want or need). The reason this inspires me is because such people are not afraid of change and they do not give up easily. I think that is the spirit humanity needs to perfect if we are to thrive in the long run.

Q: What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?

A: Getting my first customer that paid for something that wouldn’t have happened without me. A close second is the first person I hired (i.e. gave a job to).

Q: What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?

A: If I could do some things again, I would probably spend more time on market analysis, talking to customers earlier, risk more financially on hiring experienced staff, spend more time on quality control and product development processes, and reflect more on when a business relationship is and when it isn’t going to lead anywhere.

Q: What challenges do you face as an entrepreneur working with synthetic biology?

A: There is no difference to being an entrepreneur in other areas, other than it being a new term that needs explaining.

Q: How do you relax?

A: Rock climbing, cooking, walking, taking a nap out in the open under a tree, watching movies, etc.

Q: Any last words of advice?

A: Never do anything alone and don’t be afraid to give away some of your ideas/assets. It’s better to own a small fraction of a profitable company than to own a majority of an unhatched set of ideas.

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