Thursday, February 28, 2013

A new perspective on business

Along with genomic research and education, HudsonAlpha's mission encompasses economic development. When the institute opened in 2008, 12 companies leased space in the anchor facility on campus. During the past five years, the number of companies has doubled and a conference center and second building have been added.

The institute's economic arm is one of the things that makes HudsonAlpha different from most research organizations. Founders Jim Hudson and Lonnie McMillian, both serial entrepreneurs, believe that discoveries in the non-profit labs will be transferred into products and services faster through close contact and partnerships with for-profit groups.

One of the companies located at HudsonAlpha, Kirchner Private Capital Group, specializes in entrepreneurial business. You can learn more about company here, but in the meantime, here's a throwback blog from Kirchner on "Building a Business: A Lifecycle Perspective." 

When born, humans are an extraordinarily frail and dependent lot. Without proper care and nurturing, most infants cannot survive. As an infant matures into a toddler, child, adolescent, teen and adult, needed supports and guidance change. However, decisions made at various stages in one’s life can have profound consequences on the quality of life, wellbeing and even survival.

Businesses are similar. Without proper care and nurturing, most do not survive. Also similar to humans, businesses that survive move through several distinct phases during their lifecycle. At each phase the support and guidance that is needed also change. As with humans, the decisions you make at the plateau of each phase will have a direct effect on whether your business moves from the current plateau to the next in its lifecycle.

I am reminded of one of the “one liners” in our recent book, How Do You Know if You are an Entrepreneur: “If neither path at the fork in the road looks promising, but that doesn’t stop you”… you might be an entrepreneur. The fact you are at a fork typically means your business has reached a plateau in its lifecycle and the decision can make a difference in whether your business thrives or dies. Yet, some of us behave as if we have forgotten businesses can be and should be viewed in terms of the phases in their lifecycle.

When faced with decisions related to a new venture, even entrepreneurs who have been successful in a prior venture do not consistently identify the discrete phase or plateau that their business is positioned at a given point in time. They also may not appreciate the critical importance of decisions that are made at each at least four major plateaus in the lifecycle of the business. Most importantly, too often they do not adequately consider alternatives in the context of their related risks and possible rewards in moving from one plateau to the next plateau.

General lifecycle phases: While there may be many ways of characterizing the phases of the lifecycle of a business, for simplicity we will consider three broad phases: (1) startup; (2) growth, and; (3) liquidity event. During the startup phase, at least three discernible plateaus will be experienced. The first occurs after you have your “idea” or make your discovery. The second occurs after a prototype has been developed and market opportunities quantified. The third occurs after you have your first beta customer. During the growth phase, the may be many small plateaus, but for the sake of brevity in this blog they are grouped into commercialization activities. Finally, during the liquidity phase activities related to increasing market share are viewed in the context of increased valuation for and M&A, IPO or other liquidity event.

Value and reward versus risk: The point of laying out general lifecycle phases isn’t to engage in an academic exercise. Rather it is to illustrate that the resources, support and guidance needed at each of the plateaus raise a myriad of questions that must be addressed. The decisions that come from addressing those questions will likely make a difference in whether your business moves to the next plateau or stagnates and dies.

Your decisions should be guided by two sets of consi derations. First, how will various decisions ultimately affect the creation of value in my business? This is true, of course, since your ultimate reward will likely be directly related to the value that you have created. However, on the other hand such issues as time, other resource allocation required and investment requirements can be viewed in terms of a risk continuum. Most decisions that you will make should guide you to the right spot to place the fulcrum to achieve balance on the risk-reward seesaw.

The lifecycle perspective: This blog is not intended to imply that using a lifecycle approach to conceptualizing the birth and growth of a business is the only conceptual framework that might be useful. It is also not a full articulation of the many subtleties and nuances that actually should be considered with making decisions at each plateau.

Follow this link to a slideshare presentation.

Dr. Patrick McNees is a managing partner with Kirchner. He is a 
serial entrepreneur with 36 years of experience starting, developing and exiting 
companies and intellectual property. He was the founding CEO and Chief Scientist 
at Applied Health Science, Inc. and co-founder and President of North Rim 
Systems and Computer Associates, a computer software development firm.

Monday, February 18, 2013

You can lead a horse to water...

I’ve always found clichés annoying, but one more than others:

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Now I’m no expert on horses, but there seems to be some inherent problems with this phrase. First of all, if the horse is thirsty and there’s water around, you can’t keep it from drinking. Thirsty horses drink. Period. Second, if the horse isn’t thirsty, why are you leading it to water? Quenched horses don’t drink. Lastly, if the horse is thirsty but not drinking the water, then something is terribly wrong with the water.

Obviously I think too much about clichés, but I’ve heard this particular one used in reference to students. Students may be described as apathetic, unwilling to work, unmotivated or uninterested in academics. Or unthirsty horses, if you will. Many teachers see themselves as tirelessly leading these unthirsty horses to the water over and over again only to have the cooling waters of knowledge refused. Teachers wrestling with unengaged students turn to fellow educators for tips and hear: “Well, you can lead a horse to water….”

Each summer, I spend two weeks in a room full of thirsty horses; a group of engaged and dedicated educators. These teachers spend 14 days in a professional development course that leaves them drinking from a fire hose. It is our job as the facilitators to bring buckets of water by way of content knowledge and hands-on strategies. It is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Teachers know that feeling because thirsty horses are awfully fun to teach.

Whatever the reason, teachers return to the classroom to find students unengaged -- or rather to find horses not drinking the water. Our job as educators is to hydrate those horses. Here are my thoughts on how to keep your horses thirsty:
  • Ask what’s wrong with the water. Don’t get so busy that you forget to consider reasons that your students aren’t engaged. Perhaps they are full of water from a previous class and need time to digest. Perhaps they don’t recognize the water because they lack prior experience. Perhaps they are too busy thinking about food to realize they are thirsty. Perhaps your water is stale and could use some freshening up.
  • Be thirsty yourself. With budgets tight it is harder than ever to find funding for professional development, but it is always worth the effort. Investing, both the money and the time in your professional growth pays off not only for you but also for your students. Seek out those opportunities that allow you to experience as a student. Solid professional development not only deepens your content knowledge, but also keeps you excited about the classroom.
  • If you are full, leave the water alone. Find balance in your life. You are not just a teacher, or a parent, or a spouse or the chairperson of that committee. You are all of those things and you must not let any one responsibility overpower the other. If you are full, step away from the water.
  • Hang out with other thirsty horses. There are unthirsty horses in the teachers' lounge too. Avoid them. Make an effort to spend time around other teachers who are determined to help students learn. You can identify the unthirsty teachers by noticing who says, “Well, you can lead a horse to water…..”
For additional resources from HudsonAlpha's education team, visit the education portal

Madelene Loftin works as an education specialist
at HudsonAlpha. She was named Mississippi's
Outstanding Biology Teacher of the Year in 2008.
Since joining HudsonAlpha, she's been inspiring
Alabama students to pursue careers in science while
inspiring science teachers to be better educators.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Could DNA store all the world's data?

Across several news outlets this week, there's been talk of storing the world's data on DNA strands. You can read one of those articles here while Neil Lamb, HudsonAlpha's director of educational outreach, gives a bit more insight into exactly how the process would work...

Scientists have developed a method for storing documents, images and sound files inside the strands of the DNA double helix. The technology could open new avenues to keep copies of your favorite photos, that short story you wrote in fifth grade or those home movies of Christmas and birthday parties. Best of all, the technology would be safe for thousands of years and would take up less space than a tube of lipstick.

Let’s back up for a moment and discuss storing data. Information, whether from text, image or sound, is digitally encoded as long strings of 0s and 1s. Eight of these digits make up a “byte” of information. A typed page is made up of 2,000 bytes while a movie download contains about a billion bytes. It’s been estimated that all of the world’s digital data takes up roughly three zettabytes (a billion trillion bytes).

DNA also uses a code to store information. In this case the code is four chemical “bases” – adenosine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C). Several years ago, scientists began to look at how the digital code of 1s and 0s could be stored inside the DNA. The digital string of 0s and 1s is rewritten as a series of A,T,C and G. (Keep in mind, the DNA fragments used for storage have no biological function and are kept inside a vial rather than inside a cell.) When stored under particular conditions, the DNA is stable for tens of thousands of years. When it’s time to recover the information, the DNA is sequenced and the order of the bases converted back to the corresponding bytes.

Early attempts to store information as DNA code directly mapped 0s and 1s onto the bases – for example, a 0 was represented by A or C and a 1 by T and G. Unfortunately, this approach is problematic when the string of 0s and 1s leads to a repeat in the DNA sequence – like CCCCC. Current DNA sequencing technology struggles to correctly identify these repeat regions, miscalculating how many “Cs” are present and introducing errors into the numerical data.

Here’s where the recent media attention comes into play. Nick Goldman and colleagues at the European Bioinformatics Institute in the UK have devised a method to minimize the likelihood of copying errors. Rather than use a direct link between 0s and 1s and DNA bases, they devised an intermediate code that prevents repeating bases. To further reduce errors, the original code is split into fragments four different ways, with the breakpoints occurring at different locations each time. This way, if an error does occur, other copies of the same region can be used as comparison.

The scientific team encoded multiple files, including part of an MP3 recording of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, a text file of all the sonnets of William Shakespeare and a PDF of the 1953 paper by Francis Crick and James Watson describing the structure of DNA. All told, 757,000 bytes of information were encoded on over 153,000 DNA fragments. The scientists estimate their approach, which is described online in the journal Nature, can store over two petabytes (or two million billion bytes) of information on a single gram of DNA. That’s a mind-boggling amount of information contained in something about the size of 15 grains of sugar.

Speed and cost are the two biggest drawbacks to DNA-based storage. It took four days to synthesize the code into DNA and the process of sequencing and decoding the fragments required two weeks. The synthesis and decoding process costs $12,620 per megabyte of information – millions of times more expensive than storing data on magnetic tape. However, as technology continues to improve, both the price and timeframe are expected to drop dramatically. If current trends continue, the researchers estimate that in less than a decade DNA-based storage will be cost-effective for information stored 50 years or more. This could be especially useful for long-term archiving of governmental, historical or scientific data that only rarely would be accessed.

If you’ve ever had to search for a way to pull data from an old floppy disk, zip drive or VHS tape, you know how quickly digital storage technologies change. The researchers note DNA has been storing biological information for more than 3 billion years, meaning the odds are high it will be around in the future, available for conversion into whatever new technology civilizations are using to share data. Hang on to your CDs, DVDs and thumb drives a little bit longer, but this technology is certainly worth watching.

Dr. Neil Lamb is HudsonAlpha's director of 
educational outreach. Trained as a human geneticist, 
he now focuses his energy on creating programs and 
activities that help Alabama's teachers, students and the public understand genetics and biotechnology.