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Innovation Pioneer: If It Can’t Benefit Patients, Who Cares?

Steve VanNurden shares guiding thoughts from 30-plus year career at the CU Innovation Forum

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Written by Carie Behounek on June 18, 2024

Steve VanNurden, MBA, wants CU Innovations to be known for one thing: how well it helps translate ideas from idealism into action. It’s a statement borrowed from Charlie Mayo, a founder of Mayo Clinic, where VanNurden began his career in innovation 34 years ago.

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Steve VanNurden shares advice with colleagues before his imminent retirement at the recent CU Innovations Forum.

Retiring soon from his roles as the associate vice chancellor of biotechnology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and president and CEO of the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority (FRA), VanNurden was invited to give closing remarks on day one of the June 10-12 CU Innovation Forum.

The three-day event featured presentations from campus innovators, entrepreneurs and biotech CEOs about all stages of the innovation journey.

Since establishing CU Innovations in 2016 to reinvent the way technology is transferred, VanNurden helped lead the entity to its recognition as a top five innovation hub by the National Institutes of Health and a ranking of 21st in innovation by the National Academy of Inventors.

Throughout his career, VanNurden kept a file of quotes and anecdotes that informed his journey, and he shared some of those pearls of wisdom in his speech.

If it can’t benefit patients, who cares?

At the start of his career in innovation, VanNurden struggled to find focus. He believed every new idea was great. Finally, his boss and mentor took him out for beers. “He said, ‘Look, what you’re going to remember most is how you benefited patients. If it doesn’t benefit patients, who cares?’ And he was right. If you can’t get your idea to patients, then move on to the next one.”

Management, management, management

A well-known venture capitalist told VanNurden early in his career the three most important things about a startup: management, management, management.

“I've seen great technologies fail because of poor management, and I've seen average technologies really do well because of good management.”

Teams can have good resumes. But they may not have what it takes to succeed if they can’t demonstrate great teamwork.

Innovation never happens in a vacuum

VanNurden said the quickest way to run out of ideas is to think you’re the only one with ideas. He also cautioned that sometimes, ideas that don’t seem great at first end up being highly valuable.

VanNurden used an example of a patent he worked with at Mayo that’s value in increasing utilization and decreasing costs was realized only after it was filed. Later, VanNurden learned its creator was a lab tech with a high school degree, not an MD or PhD. The tech broke down when receiving a royalty check for $600,000, explaining that he had two kids with special needs whose cost of care had been a struggle and constant worry.

Hedgehog approach

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” - Isaiah Berin, “The Hedgehog and the Fox"

VanNurden encourages organizations to align with the concept of the hedgehog, from the book "Good to Great" by Jim Collins.

VanNurden says organizations should focus on the intersection of three areas: 1) What you can be the best in the world at; 2) What you’re deeply passionate about; and 3) What drives your economic engine.

Allow innovative ideas to rise above the day-to-day

Had a scientist not been given space to create outside of his job description, we might not have the Post-It Note.

Spencer Silver was a scientist for 3M. He and the other scientists were given time each day to “tinker” without worrying about the day-to-day business.

Silver was working on an adhesive that he thought would be very strong. But what he invented was a glue that didn’t stick well. Had he been focused only on his job of inventing strong glue, they may have missed out on the profitability of a glue that doesn’t stick well.

"Don’t let the bastards get you down"

Marilyn Carson was born when only men were in leadership roles. She had a successful career in investments, even though she'd been asked to disguise her gender. Later she led her father's company, the world's largest, privately-held hospitality company.

She also sat on the Board of Trustees at Mayo Clinic. VanNurden heard her speak about how on bad days, she’d visit a statue of her father in the corporate lobby. Inscribed in Norwegian were the words, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

“In innovation, some days it feels like people get paid to tell you no. It’s easy for them to tell you your idea won’t work. Don’t get discouraged. Press on.”

No money, no mission

While at Mayo Clinic, VanNurden spent time in the offices of Sister Generose—both eating peanut M&M's she kept at her desk and seeking the founder’s wise counsel.

Sister Generose underscores the need to put patients before business decisions with her quote, "no money, no mission." For VanNurden, it also demonstrates how intertwined mission and money are. He’s seen hundreds of technologies not succeed due to lack of money. And he knows without a strong vision and mission, there’s no need for the money.

VanNurden closed by reminding attendees that we have only today to do what matters. Today is where we work, dream, plan and build a better world.

“I sincerely hope that at CU Innovations, we keep that sense of urgency. There are patients out there who need us to translate idealism into action today, because they may not have tomorrow.”

Crowd at CU Innovation Forum at CU Anschutz
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Panel at CU Innovation Forum
Table at CU Innovation Forum
Panel at CU Innovation Forum
Crowd at CU Innovation Forum
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Audience Q&A at CU Innovation Forum
Attendees at CU Innovation Forum
Panel at CU Innovation Forum

Topics: Research, Innovation

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Steve VanNurden, MBA