Q&A: Eric Toone on entrepreneurship, failure, and resiliency

Eric Toone, vice provost and professor of chemistry and biochemistry, leads the Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E) Initiative. He’s listed as an inventor on more than thirty biomedical patents and cofounded three pharmaceutical companies. From 2009 to 2012, he was a founding member of the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the U.S. Department of Energy.

What’s the significance of your location in downtown Durham?

Duke I&E opened this new space in downtown Durham, the Bullpen, so that we could serve as a hub for all entrepreneurial activity at Duke, build strong relationships with the Durham entrepreneurial community, and be a part of the explosive growth happening in downtown Durham. We’re in the heart of what will become Durham’s Innovation District; a lot is going to grow up around us in the next few years. To really change the way that Duke-based knowledge is used, we have to build a whole ecosystem, and now we are positioned to be a force in developing that ecosystem, recognizing that the intellectual firepower of the region’s universities will be pivotal.

Isn’t it hard to fit I&E into a traditional disciplinary box?

Certificate programs are designed to pull together ideas from multiple disciplines. There is practical knowledge that students need to learn about the structure of companies, finance, sales, and legal considerations. They also need to learn about where ideas come from, how ideas get put into action, [and] what innovation looks like in different areas.

What inspired the I&E certificate?

Innovation and entrepreneurship is the trendy, cool thing in academia; almost every university of note in the U.S. has some effort in that space. At Duke, innovation and entrepreneurship is designed to straddle the entire campus. What it comes down to is the belief that I&E involves taking the knowledge that grows out of the university and using it to influence lives. And you can do that in any discipline. If we look at the majors that our students come from, sure, computer science is overrepresented, as is Pratt, somewhat. But we have students who are majoring in philosophy, religion, English—every conceivable discipline.

What’s been the student demand around the certificate?

The demand from the start was very encouraging; it’s now starting to get almost scary. Figuring out how to provide the capacity to deal with that demand is a challenge. This past year, which was only our second year, close to 200 students committed to the certificate.

Would you single out some component that students can look to from I&E?

Experiential education, which involves careful mentoring and the hands-on application of learning. That could mean anything from internships to summer programs like Duke in Silicon Valley or DukeEngage Detroit.

Is resiliency part of that learning, since a lot of start-up activity will fail?

It’s incredibly important to have a plan, but it’s also incredibly important to understand that your plan is not going to last beyond its first encounter with reality. Understanding how you can alter your plan tactically, while still maintaining your strategic goals, is part of what students have to learn. And from every failure, there are lessons to be learned. So the capstone course in the certificate program includes a reflective experience where the student looks back and asks: “What did I do? What worked? What didn’t work? What would I do differently next time?”

Failure must be a tough concept for Duke students to grapple with.

My undergraduate teaching at Duke was primarily sophomore organic chemistry. And I would tell students that roughly half the grades would be As and Bs; that meant roughly half the grades would be Cs and Ds. These students never in their lives had a grade like that, and they had no coping mechanism to deal with it. But it’s part of life. Learning how to fail gracefully, learning how to learn from such failures, are important life skills.

Is Duke, at the moment, an entrepreneurial culture?

There are pockets of entrepreneurial culture. It’s not something that’s yet a part of Duke’s ethos. And I would like to change that. I don’t want to turn Duke into “Start-up U,” where success is determined by how many start-ups we do every year. Starting companies or making money should be considered only as means to an end, and that gets back to putting Duke-developed knowledge to good use.

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