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Bill Walker: A Mentor for New Entrepreneurs

Bill Walker uses his own expertise to guide student and faculty-led startups 

Bill WalkerWhen biomedical engineer Bill Walker launched his first company, it didn’t go well.

“I tried to start a company around my research as a graduate student at Duke, and I really struggled to find a mentor who could show me the ropes,” says Walker. “I learned a lot, but it was through trial and error, and I ultimately decided that my idea didn’t really make commercial sense.” While his initial experience with entrepreneurship was challenging, Walker also recognizes that it provided him with a valuable learning experience—one that makes it easier to advise students in his role as the Pratt School of Engineering's first Mattson Family Director of Engineering Entrepreneurial Ventures.

In his position, made possible by a gift from Pratt Board of Visitors member George Mattson E’87 and Holly Mattson, Walker works with faculty, staff and students to foster and develop entrepreneurial ideas, guiding them from the lab bench into startups.

“One of the great things about Duke BME is that we are just a short walk away from a great clinical world, and that gives students and faculty a unique opportunity to see what clinicians are doing and really understand what challenges they can address and how they can make life better for doctors and patients,” says Walker. “My job is to help people at Duke make an impact.”

Walker is an accomplished researcher with more than 15 years of experience in the entrepreneurial world. Since earning both his undergraduate degree and PhD in biomedical engineering from Duke, he went on to work at the University of Virginia (UVA) for 16 years, where he founded PocketSonics, a successful ultrasound imaging company. He also spun HemoSonics out of his UVA lab. HemoSonics is now marketing the Quantra™ in vitro diagnostic system to aid in the diagnosis of critical bleeding.

“As engineers, we often get really excited by technology and assume that the greatest tech will win the day. But that’s not what happens in many cases,” he says. “It’s more important that you know what your customers’ most urgent needs are and can build a product that solves those needs. You can never do that by just reading papers or getting outside opinions. I always encourage those I work with to meet with people face-to-face to discover the true needs of the market.”

In the 18 months since Walker began as Pratt’s entrepreneurship director, he has worked with faculty and students in departments across Duke Engineering, supporting projects like Zephyr Mobility, a company founded by BME undergraduate Samuel Fox, and Realtime Robotics, founded by electrical and computer engineering professor Daniel Sorin. Beyond acting as a mentor for new entrepreneurs, Walker has rolled up his sleeves to help them raise capital, develop a patent strategy, understand technology and industrial practices, and pursue corporate leadership.

In addition to working with specific startups, Walker has worked with Donna Crenshaw to create a series of Saturday Entrepreneur’s Workshops to provide in-depth exploration of topics relating to entrepreneurship. Courses include market assessment, patent law, intellectual property, and fundraising. “My goal is to make Duke more of an entrepreneurial institution,” says Walker. “I want to make it easier to get our great ideas and research discoveries out to the world.”