“We’re all unique and we’re all messy, it’s about what you choose to do with that mess that matters.”
Samer Yammine has been part of SSES since 2015 primarily as the Course Director of Science to Business. He is a Medicine Doctor in Cancer Epigenomics from Karolinska Institutet and an entrepreneur in residence at the Unit for Bioentrepreneurship (UBE). Over the years, he has founded a number of companies, some within the biotech industry as including Karmagenes.co and CelFIT.co. Currently, he is planning our upcoming Bootcamp on Medical Innovation taking place in June. We sat him down to hear his thoughts on entrepreneurship in the medical context, the complexities of team-building and how he differentiates an entrepreneur from a manager.
Name: Samer Yammine
Title: Medicine Doctor in Cancer Epigenomics at Karolinska Institutet and an entrepreneur in residence at the Unit for Bioentrepreneurship (UBE)
What does it mean to be an “entrepreneur in residence”?
I see myself as the fire creator. My role is to light the fire in students, to encourage them to resist the urge of jumping to solutions and instead stay within the ambiguity and frustration of looking deeply at the problem. On a practical level, I train master students, Ph.D., Post Docs, professors and group leaders to run innovation projects. I help facilitate the conversation between management and entrepreneurs and bring diverse people together in order to show them the value of being an entrepreneur.
How would you define an entrepreneur?
An entrepreneur is a person who understands his or her inner power. But it’s important to note that not everyone is suited for entrepreneurship. It’s very different from running your own company. Whereas a manager is focused on developing the solution, an entrepreneur is busy defining and understanding the problem fully. An entrepreneur should not be the CEO, he or she should be the visionary, showing the direction and energizing people to follow. Sadly, there is very little entrepreneurship happening in companies. To remain entrepreneurial, you need a lot of freedom to experiment and question but when incentives change, and you have to scale and execute, that freedom is often stifled.
Can you tell when first meeting someone if he or she is an entrepreneur?
Yes, I see it pretty early on. There are certain characteristics that entrepreneurs have in common such as flexibility of mind, stubbornness, grit, a willingness to learn new things and an ability to take someone else’s perspective instead of getting stuck in your own ideas. Entrepreneurs know instinctively the importance of spending time with people who are going to use the product or service, they take calculated risk, they see what people are missing and they can identify people who will help them execute.
What you think is our responsibility as a school of entrepreneurship?
I think it’s important that we don’t promise anyone that they can become an entrepreneur. It’s important to acknowledge that other jobs can be just as valuable. Overall, we need to question the basic assumptions driving our own view of success and recognize that a meaningful life looks different for each one of us. We cannot – and should not – aim to deliver success. We should deliver high-quality education in a way that primes the young mind to ask good questions, think critically and look at the world from an open and generous perspective.
Why is interdisciplinarity important in education?
Entrepreneurship is all about interdisciplinarity. Because of the world’s complexity, you can’t solve a problem from one single point of view. If we, as a medical university continues to work in homogeneous groups consisting of only doctors, how will we be able to solve problems that are global, complex and interconnected in its nature? How can we claim to produce valuable ideas for mankind if we only look at the situation from one narrow perspective?
Is it difficult to get people to collaborate across difference?
Yes, and I think it’s a cultural thing, tied to the traditional discipline of medicine. It simply hasn’t been the norm to collaborate with others and I meet a lot of resistance when trying to change this. It will be uncomfortable, but I think it’s necessary that we remove the barriers of entitlement that we have built around ourselves as a profession. We have become way too specialized and almost, in a sense, afraid of working with others. If it was up to me, we would have faculty from Karolinska teaching Entrepreneurship at Handels and faculty from Handels teaching entrepreneurship at Konstfack. We have to switch gears and open up to the possibility that we might not be the sole proprietor of truth.
Why do you think there is such resistance?
A lot of it comes down to simple ignorance. When a leadership is tied to their own view of reality, it’s difficult to introduce a new way of approaching a problem. But I am trying to change the connotations of entrepreneurship from the inside, because I’m certain that such a shift could, literally, change the world. First, you have to recognize the value of innovation beyond the buzzword. Second, you have to change the incentives of academia from publishing articles to producing and implementing real-world solutions. Lastly, you have to realize that it’s not possible to solve a global problem with a local lens. Can you develop a medical innovation device alone? No, you need an engineer to see what’s technologically possible, a designer to make it human-centered and a business person to price it in regard to the specific context. All in all, if you don’t have a flexible mind, you won’t be able to solve tricky questions.
So how do you build a team capable of ground-breaking innovation?
Well, building a team is more important than actually creating the solution and it’s all about personality. We can all learn new skills, but we cannot reset our personality. Even if we try hard to change, moments of crisis will cause us to revert back to our original selves. But the wonderful thing about building a good team is that all personalities are needed. You need to make sure that you have the full spectrum of society present in your group, otherwise it won’t represent the diversity of people for whom you’re building the solution.
But even then, it can be difficult to work creatively. We’re not trained to ask for help, we’re taught to be self-sufficient. And if we’re all supposed to make it by ourselves, why do we need others? I think this mindset is a big problem for society in general and academic institutions in particular. We are encouraging students and faculty to compete over scarce resources rather than engage in collaborative behavior that would grow the pie for all of us. Many universities teach us how achieve and climb the ladder of success, but where are we able to hone the art of genuine collaboration?
What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?
Get out there and destroy the box. Tear down the boundaries. Talk to others and build things with people who have no idea about what you do. Entrepreneurship is an act, that’s the difficult part. Everyone can have ideas, and everyone can read a book, but you can’t copy someone else’s story. We’re all unique and we’re all messy, it’s about what you choose to do with that mess that matters.