Elaine Hamm is the CEO of the pharmaceutical accelerator, Ascend BioVentures, where she manages early-stage life science startups and evaluates the commercial potential of life science technologies.
A piano scholarship brought Hamm to the University of Oklahoma, but a hand injury spurred her to discover a new passion.
“That’s what I tell a lot of young women and others wanting to get into science,” Hamm said. “It’s taking things that you’re naturally excited by that may not have anything directly related to science, something more broad like ‘I like to learn something new every day’ that can be applied to a scientific career as well. So say you’re really passionate about communication, you like to talk or write books, that has an incredible role in science.”
“I feel like everybody has their own science that really speaks to them, that they naturally understand and they’re passionate about, and I don’t think that we allow people enough access to enough sciences to find their science,” she adds. “Microbiology was my science…more than any other scientific course, it just clicked for me. I really, truly feel like there’s always a science out there for someone, you just have to figure out what it is.”
She encourages students to seek out different opportunities not to be discouraged if something is not a good fit.
“There are sciences that I’m just not passionate about and frankly wasn’t good at,” Hamm said. “I had to take a lot of chemistry to become a microbiologist, but that didn’t define me becoming a microbiologist. It was just a stepping stone to get to my goal… Sometimes you have to experience it before you figure out what you love. “
She credits mentors like Michael McInerney and Jimmy Ballard for helping her find her niche and see herself as a scientist.
Hamm said, “I had some really great advisors throughout my time at OU, Dr. Michael McInerney…was always very encouraging to find the right kind of career path for me within science and to explore different options. He really encouraged me to go to grad school. Jimmy Ballard… was really instrumental in helping me understand a key aspect about being a scientist, which was that our jobs as scientists are to perpetuate knowledge and there are a number of different ways that you can perpetuate knowledge. It doesn’t just have to be this very like ‘Oh, I go wear a lab coat and be in a lab or I’d become a professor.’ There are a number of different ways I could take my skill set as a scientist and help perpetuate knowledge.”
She said it was influential to have that validation “that I can do science in a different way than I’d ever thought about and still add value and be a scientist without having to go down a very proscribed narrow path.”
Hamm said blending science and entrepreneurship was the right fit for her because it gives her the opportunity to more directly share benefits of science with the broader community.
“What I love about entrepreneurship and science, and the business and science combination, is that it gives you an opportunity to take something from your bench to everyone’s bench,” she said. “When I was in graduate school, I had this huge dissertation, and probably one sentence in that dissertation had commercial value…it was simply a tool I created in the lab to make the process of getting my dissertation done easier, so I thought, ‘if I thought this was easier, then surely other people would want something easy like this, too.’ It was that sort of ‘aha moment’ of something that helped me might help other people.”
Hamm adds that entrepreneurship embraces failure and learning from failure in ways that can also be beneficial to students exploring their options. She encourages students to not be intimidated or let a difficult experience deter them, but rather to explore different options.
“Find what you love to do as a person and find the science to marry with it,” she said. “You’re gathering data. How do you know until you actually try it? That’s something I love about entrepreneurship…you’re expected to fail. As long as you learn something from it, dust yourself off and try again; it’s a badge of honor.”
Prior to joining Ascend BioVentures, Hamm was the COO of Accele BioPharma and served as management for a portfolio of early-stage pharmaceutical companies ranging from diabetes to hearing loss to infectious disease. She has 10 years of professional leadership experience in the commercialization of early-stage pharmaceutical therapeutics and diagnostics, with experience in technology transfer, market analysis and commercialization of preclinical and clinical stage products. She has designed and served as the director for several start-up accelerator programs. In addition to her commercialization experience, she has worked a senior protein chemist in discovery and pre-clinical development of new chemical entities. She received her doctorate in microbiology from OU and holds several licensed U.S. and international patents.