by Neil Senturia and Barbara Bry

From U-T San Diego, May 22, 2012

What if the only person you can work for is yourself and then you join a large company?

When serial entrepreneur Rick Valencia joined Qualcomm almost two years ago, he worried whether he could adapt to having a boss — something he hadn’t experienced since he was a teenager — and whether he could thrive leading a new venture within a large organization.

How do you get the chucklehead in the corner office to accept an idea that isn’t his? Pfizer scientist James G. Christensen faced similar issues when he had to persuade senior executives to continue the development of a cancer drug that he started on at a small biotech company that was then acquired by a larger company that was later purchased by Pfizer.

In large companies, entrepreneurs are often called “intrapreneurs,” and their success is an essential ingredient to the continued growth of the organization. Companies need to learn how to both tolerate and nurture these people who can at times make others uncomfortable because they are challenging the status quo. But by the same token, the chucklehead in the cube (that’s you) needs to learn how to work both inside and outside the system to move projects along.

At Qualcomm, which has 22,100 employees, Valencia is a vice president and general manager of Qualcomm Life, which has developed a wireless solution for reliable sharing and management of medical device information. He’s learned that he can’t always make decisions quickly and on his own, even though “Qualcomm has a culture of openness and collaboration.” The issue, he said, is that “No one can say ‘yes’ and everyone can say ‘no.’ This means you need a lot of buy-in from different groups. You can’t just go to someone at the top and be ordained.”

Valencia pushes when necessary. “I have the willingness to be a jerk and the willingness to acknowledge that I was a jerk and ask for forgiveness.” For example, Valencia advocated that Qualcomm Life be set up as an independent subsidiary and graduate out of the company’s incubator as a sign of commitment from Qualcomm. Recently, the team moved into a space on the Qualcomm campus, and they are decorating and painting the walls themselves. They’re currently designing space that will be located in a building outside the main Qualcomm campus, and their space will be open and collaborative as opposed to Qualcomm’s standard building configuration where most employees have a private office.

These actions are part of Valencia’s effort to instill a culture of entrepreneurship.

“We do regular monthly all-hands meetings, and we share what’s working and what’s not working and how we’re doing against plan. We also share the management objectives of the leadership team,” he said.

At Pfizer, scientist Christensen has also experienced the need for approvals from more people and committees than he did in 2001 when as a scientist at a small biotech, he started work on what became Crizotinib, a drug for the treatment of a lung cancer caused by a specific genetic abnormality. Ten years and two companies later, the drug received Food and Drug Administration approval. Each year, about 5,000 Americans (about 5 percent of all lung cancer) are diagnosed with this cancer — a small number compared with the millions of people who take other Pfizer drugs like Viagra and Lipitor. Yet, Christensen was able to persuade Pfizer, which has over 100,000 employees, to let him continue the work.

“The Pfizer site in San Diego was formerly Agouron (a biotech company), so this site is innovative. We’ve tried to keep the biotech mentality and make decisions quickly,” said Christensen, who is now the director of Oncology Precision Medicine for Pfizer.

Perseverance is an essential quality for a corporate intrapreneur, particularly when it takes 10 years to develop a new drug. “It’s a long process, we solve problems one at a time. We whack one mole and another one pops up. What keeps us motivated is the patient,” he said.

This mindset — stubborn, determined, annoying, tenaciousness or relentless, whatever you call it — is the DNA of a successful entrepreneur or intrapreneur.

Neil Senturia and Barbara Bry, serial entrepreneurs who invest in early-stage technology companies, take turns in writing this weekly column about entrepreneurship in San Diego. Please email ideas to Barbara at

Rule No. 54

Even though you are brilliant, the fact that you thought of it does not in and of itself make it valuable or relevant. Sorry.

Read column on U-T San Diego.

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