What can you do in six minutes? Brew a cup of coffee, answer email, or catch up with one of Purdue’s innovators. Between the lab, the classroom, bringing new ideas to market, and home, Purdue Innovators are busy trying to make the most of their time.
The Take 6 is a new interview series the Purdue Research Foundation is featuring faculty, innovators, leaders and community partners.
Gregory Deason is the Senior Vice President of Entrepreneurship and Place Making of the Purdue Research Foundation. Following the Purdue Technology Showcase we wanted to get some perspective with Greg on a Take 6. We learn more about how Greg deals with stress, who influenced him, and why he wants Purdue startups to stay for life.
Do you procrastinate? If not, what drives you? If you do, how do you manage that procrastination?
Gregory Deason (GD): In order to advance goals and in the absence of 100 percent knowledge. I think one of the areas where I historically found myself on the verge of procrastination was on the very hard and very large tasks. And to guard against procrastination I found that breaking a large task into a series of smaller steps has been key. I certainly agree with the old proverb that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Did anything in your undergraduate time lead you to your current path? Did you have a professor, internship, research project that led you into doing what you’re doing now?
GD:A few legendary Purdue professors in Ag Econ like Robert Taylor and John Kadlec and Larry Bohl all come to mind as they taught me discipline, thought processes, and problem solving in the classroom. I also remember distinctly a recruiter from Kraft foods that attended one of my seminar classes and he advised that ag econ students were all going to leave Purdue technically sound but he said that what would separate us from the others would be our ability to communicate well. And i took that as a challenge and minored in english and communications and would say that learning to write short stories and dialogue and poetry may not seem all that connected to the world of high tech places and commercialization startup companies but i assure you that learning to think creatively and further to express myself creatively have served me extremely well in my career and in my life.
Can you tell us about a time you had to go against the grain or against convention to get something done?
GD: Back in 1995, high-tech business incubation was an emerging field and the industry as a whole was obsessed with something they called ‘graduation rates’ for the companies, like a high school reporting how many students graduate and move on in life. New companies graduating out of the incubator and landing somewhere else to grow and thrive was the goal. I felt these graduation rates were artificial, and actually in many cases were detrimental both to the incubator and to the companies. I didn’t think the companies were ready to move on and there was really no future financial payoff for the incubator and in our case the Purdue Research Foundation. So I bucked all of that and I set out not to graduate anyone. I wanted startups to come to the incubator and stay for life. I can assure you the bucking of graduation rates was not popular and in fact it was controversial. But I think in the end we’ve proven that this is a sustainable model and it’s led to a ton of benchmarking of Purdue by others. Our ‘stay for life’ mentality led us to continuing not only a relationship with these companies but many of them became highly successful like SSCI, Endocyte, Cook Biotech Inc., Griffin Analytical Technologies (now owned by FLIR). And in the process we created a sustainable business model for Purdue Research Foundation, we created thousands of jobs right here in West Lafayette, and we created opportunities for these mature companies to stay in our environment and to help and be an inspiration to the new ones.
So we know you have a lot going on professionally, personally. How do you decompress after a long day, a long week, or a big project comes to fruition? What’s your way letting go?
GD: The way I decompress is through my two favorite hobbies which are music and hiking. I’m a guitarist, I’m a singer, I’m a songwriter, and that really feeds my soul in many ways, simply by being an outlet of creativity or a great inspiration and source of fun with my friends. I’ve also been fortunate to do a lot of urban hiking and experience some of the most amazing hikes in the forest, the desert, the mountains and in all seasons. One of my favorite things to do is to get far enough into a nature hike where I can hear no human sounds, no voices, no cars or traffic, and just see what I can hear and observe. I think learning to identify trees and plants and the various sounds birds make kind of take things to a whole new level for me and help me to relax, to gain perspective, and certainly to decompress.
Who is a person/figure in your field or that you know historically that you feel more people should seek to understand better?
GD: Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison are a couple of people that really come to mind for me. da Vinci comes to mind because he appears to have been skilled at using his entire brain and was widely known for his unquenchable curiosity which I believe led him to become one of the best artists of all time, one of the best engineers, one of the best inventors and scientists that the world’s ever known a true renaissance person. I believe entrepreneurs and inventors are driven by some of that same spirit and it would serve them well to better understand the life of da Vinci.
Thomas Edison inspires me in ways just due to his sheer grit and determination. Just the fact that he wouldn’t accept failure, that he had that grit appears to have made him the last person standing with regard to the light bulb. I mean what must it have been like to make a light bulb in the absence of light bulbs, having to rely on lanterns and candles to see at night? I think this grit and determination are lessons we can all use as entrepreneurs and inventors and leaders to solve some of our great challenges of today
I think as a footnote, neither Edison or da Vinci were born into privilege and that tells me that their unquenchable curiosity drove them to amazing success and I’m sure there is a lesson there for all of us to learn.
If you could snap your fingers and eliminate one problem or barrier in your field or in your life, outside of COVID what would it be?
GD: It would be to make it easy to either attract CEO talent or to be able to create it. For most of our startup companies they are world experts in their technology and if somehow by snapping my fingers they would attract an amazing business leader, or be transformed into one, it would lead to dramatic ultimate success and allow them to take their idea and truly create impact. There’s this great debate about entrepreneurs, are they born just with this innate ability to be an entrepreneur or can you create such a thing? I don’t know the answer to whether you can truly create a business leader or not, I wish I did. But I do think that what we tend to find is a person knows everything there is to know about their tech and yet that’s never enough to actually create a successful business.