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Co-op partnerships key to entrepreneurial possibilities

Pharmaceutical entrepreneur Joe Fleming offers practical advice to Northeastern students who want to found health science start-ups: combine your clinical expertise with a novel business product.

On Thursday, at the fifth annual Health Sciences Entrepreneurs mentoring event at Northeastern, Fleming, PAH’70, MS’71, and a dozen other alumni in the health-care industry shared that advice and other nuggets of start-up wisdom with roughly 200 students who are interested in launching their own companies. The event was a featured program of Northeastern’s Global Entrepreneurship Week.

Fleming, the founder and chairman of Novus Health, Inc., a Stow, Massachusetts, firm that develops and acquires new health-care models, sees a grand opportunity for budding health science entrepreneurs to become innovators in a rapidly changing field.

“The entire world of health sciences has changed dramatically,” he said, noting the quickness with which the biotechnology industry has transformed patient care. “Health care has gone from 7 or 8 percent of our GDP to almost 18 percent.”

When it comes to building health science start-ups, Northeastern’s location and its co-op program give students an edge on the competition, said Carl LeBel, PhD’89, who hosted a breakout session on investing in health-care firms.

“Boston is such a medical and science-heavy region,” explained LeBel, the chief scientific officer of Otonomy Inc., a San Diego, Calif., biopharmaceutical company. “And what separates Northeastern from other universities is its co-op program. The connection to so many different companies in the health-care industry is something the university can take advantage of,” he said.

Ashkan Afkhami, ’09, is the quintessential example of a Northeastern student who takes advantage of his connections gained through co-op.

As an undergraduate majoring in management information systems and finance, he held positions as a business analyst at BlackRock, as a customer advocacy lab engineer with Cisco Systems, and as an IT tech support staff member at the Boston Beer Company.

Today, Afkhami is enrolled in Northeastern’s master’s of technological entrepreneurship program and is a site administrator for Hercules Technology Growth Capital, a specialty finance company that provides venture debt and equity to venture technology and life science companies. He is also the founder and CEO of the Inter-Disciplinary Entrepreneurship Accelerator (IDEA), a student-run organization that helps other students create, develop and accelerate their own business objectives.

At the Health Sciences Entrepreneurs mentoring event, Afkhami co-hosted two breakout sessions on IDEA.

Like Fleming, he had poignant advice for the roughly 30 students who attended the discussion. “One thing is certain,” he said. “Things will go wrong. Starting a company is a pretty massive undertaking, and going through it myself, there’s always a way to change something or improve on something.”

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