The latest issue of Business Week has two wonderful stories about how innovators overcome challenges.  One is about overcoming difficulties in raising money (external). The second is about overcoming the huge obstacle of a health problem – Asperger’s Disease, a form of autism. 

The first story by Spencer Ante tells about Fluidigm just missed a successful IPO (incidentally, there has been only one (1, uno) VC-backed company that did an IPO in the past two quarters in the US !)

Gajus Worthington has seen the effect of the financial meltdown on U.S. startups, and it’s not a pretty picture. The chief executive of Silicon Valley’s Fluidigm set out to take his chipmaker public about a month ago. On Sept. 5, the first day of the company’s road show, Worthington gave a standing-room-only presentation to blue-chip investors interested in buying Fluidigm stock. Three weeks later, after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and panic seized investors, he pulled the plug on the initial public offering. Worthington realized he couldn’t proceed after money managers he met with in San Francisco told him they didn’t even know how long they’d have jobs. “You could smell the fear,” he says.

Talk about bad timing! Worthington’s road show landed smack in the middle of the 1929-like panic.

Worthington had hoped to raise $80 million in the IPO, to give him a cushion of cash. Fluidigm originally priced the deal at 14 to 16 a share, but the offers from investors quickly dropped to single digits. At one point during the road show, Worthington checked into a hotel room and saw a newspaper lying at his feet. The headline, as he recalls it, read: “Worst Financial Crisis Since the Depression with No End in Sight.”

Worthington is not giving. According to the story, “the CEO laughs about the horrible timing now. Yet despite the risks of running low on cash, he’s determined to outrace the competition. He’s hiring sales and marketing executives to help find new customers in life sciences and other fields. Now, sales are concentrated with a small number of customers, including the Singapore Economic Development Board.”

A huge victim of the current global financial crisis and downturn will be the thousands of companies that brilliant innovators and entrepreneurs dreamed of starting, then abandoned.

Think different. Perhaps this is just the time to start a company (with a bootstrapping financial model), when everyone is rushing for the exits in panic. External constraints can be overcome with the same guts and ingenuity that launched your idea.


The second story, by Susan Berfield, is about an entrepreneur who launched a company even though he has Asperger’s, a form of autism. (Many will recall the amazing novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, about a young boy who had Asperger’s). 

Bram Cohen’s brain works differently from most people’s. He has Asperger’s syndrome, a condition that keeps him rooted in the world of objects and patterns, puzzles and computers, but leaves him floating, disoriented, in the everyday swirl of human interactions. When Cohen was in his late twenties he sat on a wooden chair with a Dell (DELL) keyboard on his lap for the better part of nine months writing a software program. In 2001 he introduced BitTorrent, an ingenious, disruptive, and controversial piece of technology that is available for free and lets people easily exchange huge amounts of digital information, from software upgrades to videos. Pirated movies have always been the most popular files shared. They, along with more legitimate files, now generate about half of all traffic on the Internet.

BitTorrent causes us to ask, wait! If Cohen can launch a successful startup, why not me? Here are some of the challenges he overcame:

For Cohen, this has been a fraught journey into the sometimes bewildering world of the office. The social conventions that ease everyday interactions can still elude him. He doesn’t like to shake hands or wear shoes or make small talk. He often plays with a Rubik’s Cube. Sometimes when he is outraged, or more often when he is fatigued, he bursts forth with unwelcome candor. He can be oblivious, lecturing on solar cells or economic theory or euphemisms until someone stops him.

Cohen’s childhood in Manhattan was one of isolation. He lived comfortably enough with his mother and father and younger brother, Ross, and they shared a vigorous intellectual life. But he had no friends. At 16, he could program in three languages. Yet he could not comprehend the social hierarchies of adolescence. “I was picked on a lot,” he says. “There was something obviously wrong with me. But it wasn’t acknowledged until I was much older that something had always been off-kilter. Were I to have to redo high school, I would just drop out immediately. “He attended the State University of New York at Buffalo for one miserable year and then left.

Charles de Gaulle once said (in a rather bitter put-down of America’s vision to put a man on the moon), “We may well go to the moon, but that is not very far – the greatest distance we have to travel lies within us”. 

For entrepreneurs and innovators, this is true. The external environment for launching a company, raising venture capital and launching an IPO are more challenging than they have been since 1929. Yet the biggest challenge, I find, lies within us. Can we overcome the barriers of fear and uncertainty that keep us from even trying? Bram Cohen shows that as always, the burning desire to become an entrepreneur can defeat our innermost fears.