Mixing Students and Scientists in the Classroom

In his course on commercializing science and technology, Lee Fleming combines students from business, engineering, law, science, and medicine. The result: Ideas for products from scale-eating bacteria to quantum dot cancer treatments. Key concepts include:
  • Unique approaches and perspectives are crucial when exploring opportunities occurring at the intersection of business, science, and technology.
  • The first step in mixing teams from diverse disciplines is often to break through preconceptions each group has about the other.
by Deborah Blagg

Despite earning two engineering degrees at Stanford, HBS associate professor Lee Fleming says he always knew he "wanted to study more than electrons." Even so, the former professional musician and bike racer, who worked at Hewlett-Packard for seven years and holds two patents in integrated-circuit testing, admits it was anything but inevitable that he would end up at HBS.

"I was interested in science and technology policy at the Kennedy School, and I also thought about law school," notes Fleming, who joined the HBS faculty in 1998. “It took me a while to find my niche."

His on-going research at HBS synthesizes elements of history, sociology, business, and statistics.

In the classroom, Fleming has carved out a place for himself helping students from diverse disciplines learn to work together productively at the intersection of business, science, and technology. His second-year elective, Commercializing Science and High Technology, is designed to attract business, science, engineering, law, and medical students from across the University.

Deborah Blagg: What is it like to teach a course where the students have such diverse academic interests and backgrounds?

Lee Fleming: The classroom discussions remind me of early classes in the first-year required curriculum. The MBAs make up about 40 percent of the class and are in their last term at HBS—obviously, they can run a case discussion. In contrast, most of the others have zero case discussion experience. As an example, we had a discussion of medical ethics where I asked one of the physicians to role-play a doctor trying to convince a patient to enroll in a study. Not one of the fifteen physicians in the room would do it—even after a cold call! So that was an awkward moment, but the learning was tremendous.

Beyond that, at the outset, there was some mutual antagonism and posturing; the scientists assuming MBAs only care about the bottom line, and the MBAs thinking projects would move along much more efficiently if the scientists would get out of the way. That was fairly predictable. The goal is to break through those stereotypes to establish a nuanced understanding of what makes an MBA or a scientist tick.

Q: How does the course accomplish that?

A: We begin by going into some depth as to what motivates a scientist, and why scientists have such a desperate need to publish. And we start with the classic norms of science. We actually discuss this in terms of the discovery of DNA. Watson and Crick arguably violated scientific norms by relying on information that had been gathered by other researchers. Nevertheless, they came up with a breakthrough that had huge societal benefits.

This sets up a theoretical framework for examining today's norms. Right now in the marketplace, the lines between open science, public knowledge, and proprietary knowledge and research are becoming blurred. A lot of firms are publishing scientific literature, while universities have started to get more cagey about letting people know what they're up to. Many of our cases and readings focus on strategic, operational, and ethical issues that arise in this environment at the level of the researcher and the firm.

Q: What about the project portion of the course?

A: It's exciting. There probably are only five or ten universities in the world where you could teach a course like this. We draw on science from labs across Harvard, and our student teams are tasked with determining if there is a market for the science, who the competition is, if it should be licensed or patented, and whether or not a viable company could be based on it.

The lines between open science, public knowledge, and proprietary knowledge and research are becoming blurred.

This is pre-business plan stuff. It's still so far out there that it's not clear it will ever have any commercial impact. So the scientists and engineers on the teams have to do the technical research and explain it to the MBAs, who then have to think about the prospects for commercialization. They have to communicate back and forth extensively.

Q: What were some of the projects?

A: As an example, one of last year's teams was looking at an application of quantum dots for cancer treatment that had been proposed by an outside sponsor. Along with a bunch of other highly qualified students, one of this team's members was a Dana-Farber Cancer Institute researcher. Within two weeks, the team delivered the bad news that the technology wasn't going to pan out. But they then went away and came back in ten weeks with a new quantum dot application—and a patent disclosure. They made a fantastic final presentation about science, potential markets, and commercialization strategies.

Q: Didn't one of the projects win an entrepreneurship competition?

A: Each year, MIT, local business groups, and state agencies co-sponsor a competition designed to encourage the development of new technologies that focus on clean, renewable, or efficient energy resources. One of our teams developed last year's winning idea: a polymer-producing bacteria that eats away at microbial scale formation inside industrial water pipes. The team used their prize to launch a start-up based on the technology.

Q: Did all of the projects lead to viable business concepts?

A: No, and that's an essential lesson. A lot of the ideas don't work, and the students hate that. But it's reality when you're dealing with early-stage science. We're in the entrepreneurial Valley of Death here, where the odds are that even ideas that look really good will never make it.

Q: Who do you think learned more from the course, the MBAs or the scientists?

A: Both. Learning happened in some unexpected ways. One of the students self-assembled a team in the very early stages of the course. He assessed classmates' strengths and interests during the first couple of sessions and recruited the ones he wanted to work with. The surprise is that he was a PhD scientist, not an MBA. And this was the team that won the MIT contest.

Another student, an MD, had no faith at the outset that the MBAs could ever be persuaded to seriously consider a scientist's point of view. In a later discussion of the war on cancer, he communicated the scientist's point of view so effectively that I had MBAs coming up to me after class saying that he had completely changed their perceptions. I also heard from a number of the scientists who had become convinced that MBAs have skills and knowledge that could be highly valuable in their own fields. The course was really a grand experiment, but by the end of it, the students were pulling together, which is what I had hoped for. I'm looking forward to building on that this year.

About the Author

Deborah Blagg is a former editor of the HBS Alumni Bulletin and a freelance writer.