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Pattern Recognition

April 27, 2017, 3:29 PM UTC
Bryan Roberts
Eric Millette; Courtesy of Venrock

So here is the question I want to explore: In our ecosystem, whether as a leader in a start-up, or as an investor or board member, is experience more often enabling or constraining?

People often talk about their knowledge and experience as being an invaluable asset—many call it “pattern recognition.” The TL:DR version here is that, for most decisions truly crucial to company/investment success, the application of pattern recognition is a red herring; and often it is derived from intellectual laziness that takes root once someone has success. For the most impactful decisions, it is crucial not to apply some model but to accept the ambiguity that comes with doing new things, and to undertake the hard thinking from first principles required to construct the best path forward. Maybe that will lead to the same conclusion as prior experience, but most often not.

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To be clear, tackling questions for which there are not knowable “correct” answers is both really uncomfortable and a very regular occurrence. Sure, there are places where there is no need to reinvent the wheel, and some are important—approaches to HR for example—but every really successful company across the start-up landscape succeeds because it did something fundamentally new for the first time. It starts with the idea. Disruption doesn’t come in the form of +1 improvements; it comes when you decide to do something others believe is either impossible or silly. Often there have been previous failures in the space, but you believe it could work this time because of people, timing, technology or whatnot. Based on those prior failures to solve that same problem or serve that perceived market need, blindly applied pattern recognition would tell you to stay home. Maybe one should stay home, but then again, Illumina [a Venrock investment] was a follower of Affymetrix, which purportedly had dominant IP.

Misapplied pattern recognition continues to offer temptation incessantly throughout the course of building a company—and at every turn, people provide strongly voiced opinions as to the “right” path. With every problem or challenge, you have to recognize the uniqueness of each situation and invest the time to get to the best solution, even in the face of all this input and too many things to accomplish in any day.

Every time a startup succeeds with a new business model or technology platform, we see a flood of “me too” companies—the model du jour. For sure, there are many ways to skin a cat; the first entrant may not have found the best way and therefore isn’t always the winner. Tech has lots of these examples (Google v. Yahoo; Facebook v. MySpace), and on the healthcare side, Lipitor was the fifth statin to market while becoming far and away the most successful.

On the other hand, the model du jour is often another case of pattern recognition doing you a disservice. Think of the “Uber for X” craze of 2014-15. In oncology, for example, molecular diagnostics now has a multitude of entrants struggling to differentiate and capture share. (And the same is true of the software packages for DNA sequencing/genomics.).

Our ecosystem is about thinking differently and forging your own path. Pretty much the exact opposite of following patterns. And it is hard. Really hard. But so awesome when it works.


Bryan Roberts is a partner at Venrock. He invests actively in the healthcare sector and has ownership positions in some of the companies he mentions above.