Friday, April 6, 2012

Wandering old haunts–Campus

I was never particularly fond of Northwestern.

The school was impersonal and indifferent; long winters along the windy lakefront were brutal. The professors were excellent and the facilities were superb, but the program had huge gaps in my interest areas.  I’m a signals guy and the only signals professor was a tenured EE whose passion was asserting that the Holocaust never happened.

It made the path to a degree uncertain.  Where European schools are focused on doing three year’s time and publishing a small collection of papers, our American programs were all about persevering until you’d done enough and wanted out badly enough. Only when a student said “I’ve had it, I’m leaving”, would they get permission to write and defend their dissertation.  Our unofficial mascot was Theodore Streleski, the Stanford mathematics graduate student who bludgeoned his advisor to death with a hammer after failing to earn his doctorate.


It’s strange to return to those halls. Our department was at the northwest corner of tech, overlooking the lake (now overlooking recreational sports facilities).  The stairs with red standpipes, the bulky brick walls, the open ceiling full of pipes, wires, and florescent lighting, all were unchanged.  The visual processing laboratory, where I teased out the relationship between brain and vision, was still there; a few familiar faculty names dotted the abstracts along the walls.  An office sign revealed that a former post-doc was now a full professor.  Graduate student spaces had moved from heavy wooden desks to cloth and metal cubicles.


The department office was modern; Gwen, our assistant, was long gone.  The same job openings and occupational warnings filled the bulletin board outside.  There was a plaque announcing participation in the Biomedical Education Consortium: it’s eerie how many of those institutions were also waypoints for me over the years.  Maybe it’s inevitable within a small field.


Outside, the open spaces, once grass or parking lots, had all been filled in with massive buildings.  The observatory and computer center were gone (quaint, now, to remember going to a Center to do my computing).  Academic halls of Molecular Therapeutics and Diagnostics or Executive Education fill old roadways and footpaths.  It all appears to have grown and connected,like the images of colonizing biofilms that we’re preventing in CamStent.


The cafeteria has gone commercial; the bookstore virtual.  The only sign of political awareness is for student activity board president.  The library is busy (for how much longer); a new sculpture garden fills the old summer-stick theater space.  And more buildings- theater, music, art, all named after benefactors and their parents in bold signage.  It looks like the blond brick and sandstone of Cambridge from some angles.

I spent a few hours touring around the campus, remembering places, people, events.  The building where I took a mime class, the paths where I walked on dates, the professor’s house where a mentor reminded me that ideas always have to come before tools.  A lot of the old feel of an academic grove, thoughtful and contemplative, is long gone.  It feels like the buildings shelter and separate departments rather than bring them together for collaboration and fertilization.

It gave me a good launch in life, strong friendships and credentials for the succeeding 30 years.  But it feels like a touchstone, not a home: still someplace I’m glad to have moved on from.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Wandering old haunts–Neighborhoods

I’m visiting Chicago this week, placing our device prototype into surgery at Evanston Hospital.   The facility is four blocks from Northwestern University where I earned my Masters (1979) and PhD (1982) in the department of Biomedical Engineering.

A long time ago, indeed.  But six years of my life, the same that I’ve been expat.

I wrote a couple of days ago about the tidy red brick row houses in Dutch villages.  Evanston also builds with red brick, but each to their own lot; same two or three stories, but with much larger trees.  It’s a style the British call detached, but in America that probably describes the social distance between neighbors more than the physical gap between their homes.


The wide streets are a notable change from Dutch villages, al is the profusion of huge, flowering trees, white and pink against the blue sky.  Spring is a bit more advanced in the Midwest, with bright green shoots luminous in the sun (very Hockney-esque).  The play of light and shadow along gardens and brick, was beautiful.


The other contrast was the silent emptiness of it all: no cars, bikes, pedestrians.  It was silent except for the birds: no pedestrians, no children, no shoppers.  It’s such a contrast to the constant hum of Maastricht.

I angled off along to the lakefront north of campus, the lighthouse and art center was still there, along with the stately homes that I used to think that I might move into some day.  The waters were whitecapped and turgid green, flags snapping in the cold northerly wind.  The edge of the campus was much as I remembered, the same gothic-letter signs, the industrial bulk of the Tech Institute, the orphan and emerging departments sequestered in neighborhood houses around the main campus.

Funny…the details that I forget after being away 30 years that are nonetheless absolutely familiar once I see them again.  It restores me faith that there is an objective reality that endures irrespective of what we think about it.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Launch strategies

apple line 2

Early work on our surgical monitoring project has gone swimmingly.  We completed the prototype amplifiers in February in Maastricht, and took it to Seattle for first tests.  Ten subjects were successfully recorded and we analyzed the data and prepared five scientific abstracts which have been submitted for presentation at the Anesthesiology Society meeting in October.  That’s five weeks from proto to papers: absolutely unheard-of execution in medical device development.  (Yes, I’m proud of the engineers and clinical sites.)

The expectation of first public disclosure in October revives an old debate: how long should  we keep the product secret?

It affects a lot of things: who we talk with for advice, when to use a confidentiality, whether to do a market survey.  Clearly it’s a bad idea to go public before filing patents, or to emerge only when ramping up manufacturing.  Apple has been a master at building buzz ahead of a new product launch (the lines in New York for the new iPad, above, are typical), but their model isn’t transferrable to a company without a reputation.

Launch secrecyI was fiddling with how various companies do their product announcements and sketched this idea.  Early-stage companies, lower left, have no anticipation in the market, yet must keep plans secret to avoid having better-resourced competitors jump in ahead of them.  Once in the market, a successful product will build interest: it’s good to let customers know that version 2.0 is in the wings and solicit feedback about how to make it the best it can be.  Once you are established in the market, like Microsoft or Apple, then a dribble of news can feed anticipation, so secrecy again becomes desirable to avoid cannibalizing sales.

For us, it seems driven by two factors.

First, we anticipate that an established company could create a competitive product in six months once they set their mind to it.  That means that we have a six month window from launch to gain as much share as we can.

We also have to raise funds and build buzz in anticipation of being ready to manufacture so that we can fill orders and gain experience as quickly as possible, building value and momentum.

So, if market entry is expected in January, then starting to build awareness (ascending the Know/ Like, Trust curve) has to happen at least three months before starting with public announcements at the scientific meetings in October.  Limited disclosures will start earlier, composing a Board and approaching through leaders in late summer.  Then everything needs to be in place to mount a campaign ahead of launch, so brochures andApple line summaries will need to be ready in November.

All of which gets built into the staffing and budget estimates: the goal is to maximize sales and share in that crucial six-month window.

‘not an easy problem to match publicity and secrecy.  If we succeed, though, they’ll be lined up around the block.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Village spring, country spring

Easter is almost upon us, two days of Pasen with the expected trimmings: Belgian chocolate eggs, marshmallow chicks, meringue bird’s nests and marzipan cakes.  I’ve been oscillating back and forth between Cambridge and Maastricht, logging  lot of hours by bike and train, watching city and country flow past.

I’ve often commented that the Dutch landscape echoes the great plains.  It’s flat and lush, rolling out in green sheets to a geometric horizon.  The low skies are there, reflected steel blue in irrigation ditches and rivers, dotted with horses and sheep.  The occasional vineyard and village flash by through the train windows, mornings softened with grey mist, evenings sharpened by yellow sunsets.

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Still, it’s mostly empty compared to British fields carved up with hedges, less rolling than the fields in Normandy.  The farms are long, low, and tidy: a surprising number of ornamental trees and garden sculptures giving the barns and houses extra character.  The villages are bounded by rivers and roads: red brick row houses suddenly appear, the tall central church, a station platform, water, then more fields.

In contrast, the towns and cities are all very individual, winding streets and pocket greens, eroded defense walls alongside eccentric glass offices.

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In contrast to other parts of Europe, the central farmlands seem less interesting than the villages and cities.  Nebraska still has echoes of the parries, Cambridge the Fens: the Groene Hart was likely vast river deltas and marshland, now gone except for the sand and the canals.  It’s beautiful in its own way as the flowing trees and ripening fields come back to life after winter, but I still tend to linger among the village shops and festivals as Easter approaches.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


DSC09057People put meaning into narrative by telling stories.  Personality, expectation, causes, morals: it’s what makes history and drama compelling and instructive. When people give advice to friends, or present their opinions in business meetings, they tell stories.

And the best story usually decides.

I don’t know whether long-form stories are in vogue anymore: we used to mine books, movies, plays for their connections to larger personal and philosophic dilemmas.  Videos, tweets, TED and stacks ‘o stuff don’t give the same insights.  I watched The Descendants last night, four tangled dilemmas, developing and crossing one another.  George Clooney tried to stay sane through it all.  His character endures, but doesn’t change.  And he tells himself stories, looks for them from others, rationalize, compare, decide.

In general, I know what I’m doing.  But it’s been coming thick and fast lately and I needed to step out and get some perspective.  Management books and pundits are pretty superficial, a reassuring pat on the head. I needed to hear some stories.  I took a few hours to sit down for a quiet talk with a couple of peers, also running startups, and a few people whose experience I value.  They were fun conversations: everyone had good history and anecdotes, motivations and reflections to share.  There was wisdom on working with governance and suppliers, why to establish offices and how to phrase websites, approaches to angels and exits that were variously successful of discouraging.

There’s really nothing new, nor particularly deep in running a project or a company.  A lot of it, like the books say, is vision and commitment to core principles.  But learning strictly through errors of execution squanders scarce time and resources and erodes confidence.  That’s where I’m finding case examples more valuable than theory.

In physics we practice with problem sets; in art we perform critiques.  In business school we role play.  In life, we share stories.