A Conversation with Rensselaer Entrepreneur of the Year Dr. Paul A. Bleicher ’76

by Jessica Otitigbe on October 7, 2015

In this Approach blog, the Rensselaer news team spoke with alumnus Paul A. Bleicher, M.D., Ph.D., (B.S. ’76), who is the 2015 Rensselaer Entrepreneur of the Year, and chief executive officer of OptumLabs, about entrepreneurship, resilience in leadership, and his time at Rensselaer.

Q: What drew you to biology at Rensselaer and how has science continued to influence your career?

When I visited Rensselaer as a high school senior, I knew that I wanted to be a physician and/or scientist.  Biology seemed to be a great science to prepare me for both. Rensselaer didn’t teach biology as a soft science.  Students majoring in biology were required to take a broader scientific curriculum consisting of three semesters of physics and math, a year of physical chemistry, and so forth. The critical thinking skills I developed at Rensselaer have enabled me to comfortably work at the confluence of science and industry. And science – from statistics to computer science to molecular biology – continues to be fundamental to everything I do working for a health care startup.

Q: Why do you think students should consider entrepreneurship or learning entrepreneurial skills?

I think students should be exposed to entrepreneurship for two very different reasons. First, many students may not realize or understand the opportunities and thrills of starting one’s own enterprise. With a formal introduction to entrepreneurial skills, students may realize that they would like to “take the plunge,” and if so, will have the skills to do so. Second, entrepreneurial “moments” are everywhere in business and academics. Many careers have been made by managers who seize one of these moments and build something of lasting value. As Louis Pasteur said, “chance favors the prepared mind.”

Q: How has big data and analytics played a role in the evolution of health care organizations?

Two major themes in health care today are quality and efficiency/cost. Employers, insurance companies, and the government are inherently taking financial risk in providing health plans. Increasingly, health care provider organizations are being asked to share some of that risk. The only way for each of these stakeholders in the health system to be successful is for them to understand, at a very detailed level, the quality of the care they deliver, the inefficiencies in that care, and the true cost of care. Insurance claims data and electronic health record data can provide substantial insight into these questions, and machine learning approaches can help develop predictive models which can help to “bend the cost curve” while improving quality.

Q: Can data help today’s society find more solutions to problems or issues it faces?

Industries address problems by looking for “low hanging fruit” with straightforward solutions. Once these areas are addressed, analysis of data can provide opportunities to identify new problems, create new solutions, and track the benefits from implementing them. Data analytics can also help to identify incorrect assumptions. A great example of this is the change in sports team development that was featured in Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball.  Most industries have “Moneyball opportunities” that are waiting to be exploited.

Q: How does innovation serve as a catalyst in research in colleges and universities, as well as in organizations?

Innovation involves the practical application of new concepts to develop new solutions. Ideally, these are intertwined with one another as they were in the past at Bell Labs. The need for solutions to difficult business problems led to research and invention within Bell Labs – some more “academic,” and some more practical.  These were then incorporated into innovations such as the laser, communications satellites, etc.  In places like Rensselaer, this type of innovation is possible in partnership with industry. Academia must be vigilant to eliminate hurdles and clear the path from obstacles that can arise from a misunderstanding of the value of this type of collaboration.

Q: You helped to transform paper-based methods to Internet-enabled solutions in data collection for clinical trials. How has the industry become more nimble and efficient as a result?

Almost all Phase II and Phase III clinical trials in the biopharma industry are performed with electronic data capture these days. This has enabled an entire ecosystem of related and interconnected digital technologies to increase efficiency around patient enrollment, communications, site management, drug safety, and more.  Further, the operational metadata from clinical trials is being used to analyze efficiency and quality of the process, allowing for a more streamlined process to regulatory submissions. These allow the sponsor companies and contract research organizations to focus more on the safety and efficacy of the drugs and devices they are developing.

Q: Why do you think business and technology complement each other?

Technology enables most aspects of any business these days, and business enables the adoption and use of advanced technologies.

Q: Collaboration is vital in business as well as education. How do you see collaboration create positive results in industry and with community partners?

Collaboration is the central theme of my current work at OptumLabs. We are engaged in a bold experiment which brings partners from across the health care ecosystem together to work on research and innovation that improves patient care and patient value. The idea is that each type of partner, from life sciences company to payer to provider to academic institution, has a different view of common problems and can accelerate solutions by applying different skills and approaches to solving them. By collaborating on research and innovation, these partners are making more progress, and faster, than they ever could alone.

Q: What does it mean to you to be “resilient”? How has acting with resilience in your leadership helped you achieve goals and guide others?

I just saw Angela Lee Duckworth in a brilliant talk on “grit,” which is an aspect of resilience. Her TED talk on this has been watched over seven million times. Her research shows that grit, the ability to stick with a difficult task for a long time, is more important than intelligence or native talent in predicting success. Every worthy endeavor is a long-term undertaking with many, many failures and setbacks. With grit and resilience, we bounce back from these to continue to slowly, and incrementally improve. One foot in front of another, falling back and then progressing forward, is the way we climb mountains. So it is with success.

Resilience has been a key to my entrepreneurship, as it is to most. Starting a company is like riding a roller coaster from the highest highs to the lowest lows. Resilience enables you to move on through the lows, and steadily march toward your goals.

Q: As a Rensselaer alumnus, looking back, how did your Rensselaer education prepare you for the future?

Aside from providing me with the obvious foundation in science, Rensselaer taught me to think analytically about most things. It also gave me the tools to approach any technical task in an unknown field and encouraged me to teach myself when I didn’t have the knowledge to solve problems. This latter skill has been very important in my career.

More specifically, the most valuable class I took at Rensselaer was Technical and Professional Communications (now called Engineering Communications). This class taught students how to write, present, and speak about technical topics, and has been invaluable throughout my career. Every student at Rensselaer should take it.

Q: Do you have a favorite memory, class, or experience from your time at Rensselaer?

One of my favorite classes at Rensselaer was called “Science Fiction in Film” (now called Science Fictions).  I signed up on the spot when I heard it was held Wednesday night at the Rathskeller with the screening of a historic sci-fi film, followed by a lecture. It turned out to be a pretty rigorous and time-consuming course, but it was still so much fun.

Q. What’s the single best piece of advice that you received from a professor, colleague, or mentor that you can share with Rensselaer students?

In his Introduction to Psychology class, Professor George Boguslavsky used to discuss his practical philosophy based on some of the psychological principles we were learning. One of those has always stuck with me; to paraphrase: “If you start a degree, do everything you can to finish it. Those who don’t complete the degree often wear it on their shoulders for the rest of their lives.” I think this is about more than degrees. If you start something significant, try to finish it.

Paul A. Bleicher, M.D., Ph.D. (B.S. ’76)









This blog post was curated by Julie Tracey, senior communications specialist in the Lally School of Management.