While earning her M.D., Nowinski co-founded and was CEO of SanoGene Therapeutics, an early stage biotechnology company that she spun out from the university. She later worked at venture capital firms Sikich Investment Banking, ARCH Development Partners and Midwest Venture Partners. Today, Nowinski is interim executive director and chief operating officer for the forthcoming research lab, along with her main role as the university’s associate vice president for innovation and economic development.
There, she helps find ways for U of I research, students and technology to contribute to the local economy. She shares her education as a company founder and her vision for Illinois’ startup environment.
Q. What did you learn most from starting SanoGene?
A. We ultimately shut down the company, but it was one of best experiences of my life. It led me to realize how much failure can impact one’s career, and ultimately it made me a stronger operator and businessperson. There were very basic business principles that the first time you don’t know. They could be as simple as how you set up by-laws or board governments or which accounting software to use. But until you go through that experience of having to figure things out, you don’t know what you don’t know.
The second time, you may not know the answers, but at least you know which questions to ask. That was the biggest lesson. Another lesson taught me the importance of the relationships among co-founders and the relationships between the business side and the technology side.
Q. What can you tell us about UI Labs?
A. We officially incorporated in March, and the University of Illinois drove it in close collaboration with the City of Chicago and also with support from the State of Illinois. We are developing our first programs. These are programs that bring together research, training and commercialization. Our first programs are in advanced manufacturing in the U.S. We’ve had some wonderful collaborations with other universities in Illinois and the greater Midwest as well as with leading companies, startups and mid-sized companies.
Q. What is your hope for Illinois’ startup environment?
A. UI Labs is about university-industry partnerships. This means big and small companies working together, but also working with university talent and technologies. We have a very firm belief that there’s opportunity for corporate support of startups, and it’s bi-directional. There is a lot of opportunity for employees of large companies to learn from their interactions with startups. They get the experience of working with companies that work so much faster. Things change so quickly with startups. Exposing corporate folks to that culture can ultimately lead to more “intrapreneurship” and innovation.
Q. What are some other advantages of collaboration?
A. There is increasing opportunity for large companies to look to startups as sources of their innovation from a technology and people perspective. You can develop relationships with teams within startup companies where you’re getting more than just products. You’re getting that DNA of the startup the opportunity to infuse with a larger company. The Illinois Innovation Council has launched an initiative ordered by Gov. Quinn to link large corporations to give startup companies simply the opportunity to tell their story to the big companies. There are a lot of roadblocks to let that happen. That particular initiative is just one of several kicking off within Chicagoland to better make those connections.
Q. Howard Tullman, the new head of 1871, has said he wants more serious entrepreneurs and more rigor for startups there. What do you think?
A. I really like Howard’s perspective, and I think it will go a long way. When I was on the investor side, I expected the CEOs of the companies that we were investing in that they would live and die by their company. They were all in. I think that’s what we and they have got to be looking for, and we’ve got to help build companies that are constantly testing their business models and their markets and revenue streams in a really disciplined manner.