Life is like a venture investment, biotech entrepreneur tells Northeastern business graduates

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Life is like investing in a venture, Gerald Chan, a biotechnology entrepreneur and philanthropist, told graduates of Northeastern’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business on Thursday in an address peppered with poignant life lessons.

“No wonder that life can be at times so scary and at other times so exhilarating,” he said. “Even if you were not investing monetarily, your every action in life is an investment of your time.”

Chan co-founded Morningside Group, a private investment firm, where he funds life sciences startups that are working to discover new ways to treat disease. He said that investing in new ventures and making difficult life decisions are both often made for subjective reasons and without the benefit of hard data.

He cited picking a spouse as a prime example of a big life decision that people make without data. “This decision is hardly ever made as an exercise in data analytics even though social media has produced voluminous data on people,” he said.

Chan delivered the keynote address at the graduation ceremony, which was held at Matthews Arena and honored a graduating class of 671 students who earned master’s degrees from Northeastern.

Among his messages to the graduates: live your life in a way that makes you and your loved ones proud. He said his father once declined an offer to have an ownership stake in a casino that he described as an “unregulated monopoly” with a “license to print money.”

“Had he accepted that offer, our family would have become financially richer,” he said. “But because he acted on his ethical principles against his own economic interest, my family can stand tall today.”

AI and the future of work

Chan said that artificial intelligence will help to make important decisions in the future, especially in the medical field. But he added that AI struggles to operate without data and when the questions you want help answering are subjective.

“It would be a grave mistake if we ascribe superiority to artificial intelligence over human intelligence without regard to the nature of the problem at hand,” he said.

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun focused on how AI will reshape the future of work. In his charge to graduates at the conclusion of the ceremony, Aoun acknowledged that many jobs will soon be automated and urged graduates to hone the traits that differentiate humans from machines, such as creativity, innovation, and ethical judgment. In his new book, Robot-Proof, Aoun lays out a framework for a new curriculum—humanics—that builds on people’s innate strengths.

“As technology continues to reshape the world, new roads for learning will open before you,” Aoun said. “Be bold in traveling them. Take the initiative, for you will find artificial intelligence racing forward.”

Raj Echambadi, the Dunton Family Dean of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, told graduates that they are “ready to thrive in this new technology-driven world of work.” He said that the graduates have gained real-world experience, pursued new professional goals, and learned from their peers, who come from all over the world.  

“My hope for you is that you will utilize your Northeastern experiences and become impactful ethical leaders,” Echambadi said.

Jacqueline Quill delivered the student address on Thursday, less than 24 hours after launching a company called blistabloc with fellow graduate Katherine Connors. They developed a shoe insert with low-friction tape to prevent blisters from forming.

She said she’s learned three lessons from her MBA program: to be confident and work hard, to recognize the importance of listening to other people’s ideas, and to take action in the workplace to get things done.

“Together we are a class where nothing was handed to us, and we’ve worked diligently to get through a rigorous program infused with experiential learning,” said Quill, who works full time as a product manager at DraftKings in Boston. “With that, I hope you forge a career in which you starve excuses and you fuel a bias for action.”