Alumni Profile: Brian Fahey

Brian Fahey, Ph.D., received his degree in Biomedical Engineering in 2007. He is the founder and chief operating officer at Niveus Medical, a venture-backed medical device company, for which he raised four rounds of capital at increasing valuations while operating the company as a lean, capital-efficient start-up.

Originially posted on the Duke Graduate School website

WHAT PROFESSIONAL OR CAREER PLANS DID YOU HAVE IN MIND AS YOU WERE COMPLETING YOUR GRADUATE DEGREE? ​

For my first few years of graduate school, I thought I wanted to go on to be a professor after receiving my Ph.D. At some point, I realized the pace of academia just wasn’t a right fit for me. I’m not known for being a patient person. I wanted to work on projects that could help improve medical care in five years or less, not in ten or twenty years. The longer-term research projects are clearly important and beneficial to society; it’s just not what makes me the most excited.

WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE AN ENTREPRENEUR? WHAT IS PARTICULARLY CHALLENGING? ​

Every single part of it is challenging. A lot of people I meet imagine that running a start-up is this glamorous situation, when in fact it’s stressful and an incredible amount of work. That said, it’s an amazing experience to be on the forefront of developing and commercializing a technology that you think will benefit society. You just need to make sure you are in it for the right reasons. It may put financial stresses on you and your family, and in the end it might not work out. That’s something you need to be comfortable with, and it’s a risk that not everyone is willing to accept. But if you can stomach the risk, you will get rewarded with the opportunity to work on something that is really cutting edge, something you are passionate about and that you have had an integral part in developing.

HOW DIFFERENT IS THE THINKING PATTERN IN INDUSTRY COMPARED TO ACADEMIC RESEARCH? ​

Well, every situation is different, and there are exceptions for sure, but I think it’s a fair generalization to suggest that a lot of academia involves the development or application of core technology or expertise that you or your research lab has created. The analogy I’ve seen used is that you have a hammer, and you’re walking around trying to find nails to hit in. Basically, you’ve got this great technology that you or your lab developed and you’re excited to find new applications for it. You can contrast this with how I was trained to think as I shifted to industry. The lesson was to start by examining one very specific nail, and then design the very best hammer possible to hit that one specific nail in. The challenge with a lot of academic thinking is that at the end of the day, even if your “hammer” can do the job, it still might not be the best way to accomplish the ultimate goal. The key is the nail, the clinical problem, or the unmet clinical need. Everything else should be tailored to that. When you start with a technology-oriented approach, it doesn’t always work out.

WHAT IS YOUR ADVICE ON COMMUNICATION AND TEAMWORK IN INDUSTRY?​

The smaller the company is, the more intimately you’ll be working with your co-workers. So I think people need to be realistic with themselves and find the niche where they can thrive. If you are a very introverted person, you might find yourself more comfortable in a larger company than in a smaller group where you need to play a more active, vocal role. Regardless, in any team or industry setting you need be able to collaborate with others on ideas, be able to accept criticism, and be able to build on the idea of others.

ANY ADVICE YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE WITH CURRENT GRADUATE STUDENTS AT DUKE?

As for advice, if you’re considering industry, one thing I’d recommend would be try to diversify your skill set into having as many real-world skills as possible. I think one fair criticism of many Ph.D.s is that we know things that don’t always matter in the corporate setting. This definitely was a fair criticism of me when I finished my Ph.D. For example, I have a lot of skills in ultrasound, but what could I really do in a non-ultrasound company? I was good at computer programming, but not as good as a professional programmer. I could build things, but not as well as even a basic technician or machinist. I didn’t really know much about business. What could I do besides be a scientist? Being a scientist or a researcher is a completely valid option and a great career, but if you want to create more diverse opportunities for yourself, you need to develop some real, tangible skills. There’s no formula for how to best do this. Just surround yourself with people who have skills and experience you covet. Try to be a sponge and learn as much as you can.

The two most important pieces of advice I have: 1) Be honest with yourself and be aware of what you are good at, what you are not good at, what you know, and what you don’t know. And surround yourself with people who can make up for your own deficiencies. 2) Be your own hardest critic, especially if you are trying to start something new, either as a company or a project or something else. If you can’t answer the hardest question about the project that you can think of, you’re just delaying the inevitable. Because someone else is eventually going to ask the question, or the issue at-hand will manifest itself eventually in one way or another. You want to characterize and to the extent possible mitigate the biggest risks for whatever you are doing early. If you can’t address the hard questions early, the whole project might not be a good use of your time. All of us have limited time in our careers to explore projects. Ph.D. students are generally smart and gifted people. So don’t waste your time on something that can be flawed from the outset. If you are your own hardest critic, and you can answer all the hard questions, that’s when you know you have something.

By Yi Ding, PhD Candidate in Pharmacology