02 Aug Interview with Medical College of Wisconsin Research Foundation's new director of marketing and licensing
A fish tale that is about more than the one that got away
Dr. Carl Clark illustrates how large the fish were
MILWAUKEE – The Medical College of Wisconsin is expanding its efforts to commercialize the products of its research. It reached an important milestone July 1, when Dr. Carl Clark began his new job as director of marketing and licensing for MCW’s Research Foundation.
A former biomedical researcher and entrepreneur, Clark understands first hand that successful biotechnology businesses come in all shapes and sizes. To underscore this point, Clark told this interviewer about an extremely small business – with extremely high profit margins – that he started while working as a biochemistry graduate student at Wayne State University in Detroit.
Clark’s business involved delivering fish serum to biochemists engaged in cancer research. While limited in scope, this business lowered the cost of scientific discovery while providing Clark with a nice profit.
Clark’s Ph.D. research involved studying the biochemistry of a fish called Fundulus heteroclitus in an attempt to learn more about the way cancer cells metastasize, or spread, throughout the human body. Clark and his colleagues believed that if they could learn more about the way certain fish pigment cells change color, they would gain a greater understanding of the way cancer cells move.
But there was a problem. The group’s research procedures required vast amounts of fish serum, which is not commercially available. The group’s first attempts to obtain fish serum involved purchasing pet store goldfish and extracting serum from their blood. Unfortunately, pet store goldfish are extremely small and the procedure was awkward.
The group’s second attempt at obtaining fish serum involved traveling to a commercial fishery on Lake Michigan and borrowing some unwanted carp. A daylong field trip to the fishery involved eight university employees and yielded just 100 milliliters of serum.
“It was an expensive proposition,” Clark recalled.
Clark knew he could obtain fish serum more efficiently than the group had, so he went to his principal investigator with a proposition. What if Clark traveled to the fishery, bled the fish, collected the blood and extracted the serum on his own nickel? Would the principal investigator be prepared to pay Clark $400 for a liter of carp serum?
The answer was yes. The principal investigator thought it was a great idea, since it cost a lot more than $400 to send a mob of researchers on a daylong excursion. Clark thought it was a great idea too, since he had found a way to streamline the operation.
“I like to think of myself as the Henry Ford of carp serum collection,” Clark said. He convinced some friends to work with him, paying them $10 an hour plus a white fish lunch. At his peak, Clark and his colleagues were bleeding 3,000 pounds of carp each day they went out and collecting enough blood to make eight liters of serum. “We made a real operation out of it,” Clark recalled.
Clark kept his operating expenses low, which allowed him to realize a high profit. After paying his friends, picking up the lunch tab and subtracting gas money, Clark could earn $3,000 for a single day’s work. He avoided storage fees for his frozen serum by keeping the stuff in his mother’s basement refrigerator.
The only problem with Clark’s business was the shortage of paying customers. At his peak, Clark had only four customers in the entire world, and little hope of finding more. “I would collect serum twice, and that would last the whole year,” Clark said. “But for a grad student, to be able to make an extra $6,000 per year was better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Especially for two days’ work.”
The most valuable by-product of Clark’s fish business was his increased appetite for new business challenges. “The take-home message is that if you’re in the right place at the right time with the right idea, you can make a lot of money,” Clark said.
Few high-tech entrepreneurs would consider $6,000 to be “a lot of money,” but Clark makes an important point. Profitable business ideas come in all shapes and sizes, and you don’t necessarily have to burn yourself out to make a buck.
Clark’s new position as director of marketing and licensing for the MCW Research Foundation allows him to help researchers turn their innovations into profitable businesses. “My mission is to find the appropriate company, or the appropriate person within a company, and let them know that we have intellectual property that could benefit their bottom line,” Clark said.
When he is not meeting with representatives from industry, Clark meets with faculty at the Medical College, helping researchers find out what their ideas could be worth, if properly commercialized.
Teresa Esser is a contributing columnist for the Wisconsin Technology Network and author of the book, The Venture Café. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.