Evan Edwards Kicks Off 2017 Incubator Program with Big Questions and Insightful Answers

Describing the origins of his company’s name, kaleo co-founder Evan Edwards – a dedicated UVA alumnus and active mentor to Charlottesville entrepreneurs – shared that the Greek word loosely translates to “a specific purpose or calling.”  During the course of his presentation to kick off the iLab’s 2017 summer accelerator, it became clear just how apt the name truly was.  Growing up, Edwards and his twin brother (kaleo co-founder) Eric Edwards both grappled with severe allergies that became a burden on their childhoods and a hindrance to traveling freely without fear of a medical issue.  Reflecting on that struggle – and the renewed challenges they both now face as parents to their own allergy-suffering children – Edwards expressed a deeply-held belief that his path in life was inevitably linked to helping those like him and his family.  Now, their pharmaceutical company, built on a dedication to “innovative solutions for serious and life-threatening medical conditions” (Kaleo Pharma, 2017), represents a hard-won realization of Edwards’ own life’s purpose. 

In 1999, as an undergrad engineer at UVA, Edwards took a class titled “Invention Design,” sparking a passion that ultimately guided and fueled his path to becoming an expert in the field of human factors engineering, a subject focused on discovering and optimizing how people interact with technology.  He likened the subject to the effectuation process, particularly in its inherent focus on iteration and adaptation – essentially, they both come down to “putting it out there and seeing what sticks.”  Without using quite the same terminology back in 2004 during kaleo’s founding, Evan realized that he had undergone a version of the effectuation process while growing the business over the subsequent years. 

In his presentation, Edwards urged the new cohort class to find their own deeper purpose by reflecting on three high-level questions: “What Drives You,” “What’s Your Risk Profile” and “How Do You Define Success?”  To help spark those insights, Edwards distilled his greatest learnings and most impactful milestones into the five effectuation principles which will guide the cohort’s work this summer:

Bird in Hand:
Edwards outlined the surprising ways he’s been able to pull from all aspects of his background – namely, musical theatre performances and club soccer games – to become a sharper, more well-rounded entrepreneur.  His performing background gave him a supreme comfort with public speaking that has served him well during business presentations, and his soccer team experience has helped him motivate and collaborate with kaleo employees as the company continues to expand.  Edwards encouraged the cohort to consider their own “intangible elements” that have helped shape them as people and to carry over those unique skills into their ventures.

Affordable Loss:
Recounting the early years of kaleo, Edwards shared stories about how he balanced the demands of his personal life with his desire to pursue his own path.  Strategic decisions, like working and inventing on the side, living at home or applying for grants within the UVA community, allowed him to follow his passion within his available means.

Patchwork Quilt:
Edwards spoke movingly about the significant people who have contributed to kaleo’s development along the way, many of whom believed in the idea’s potential from early on.  He compelled the group to seek out and embrace their own diverse group of advisors at every stage.

Lemons to Lemonade:
Emphasizing the fact that there will always be setbacks along the way with any venture, Edwards shared many examples of the challenging moments in kaleo’s history – from faulty prototypes to apprehensive investors and extensive FDA hurdles – which the team has been able to turn into positive inflection points.  Evan urged the iLab cohort to see obstacles as road maps for ways to adapt and ultimately move forward, and he cautioned them not to burn bridges along the way.  For kaleo, the FDA is now a trusted partner and investors who once turned them down have now come back eager for a stake in the company.

Pilot in the Plane:
To bring all of these insights together, Edwards shared a few final pieces of wisdom that he has gleaned over his years at the helm of a startup, namely: “fail fast,” “no means not now,” and “hire people smarter than you.”  One additional lesson Edwards said he has taken from his human factor engineering work is the simple but profound idea that “we are all human and we all make mistakes.”  While this is certainly salient to kaleo’s innovative design and development process, it also applies nicely to the start of this summer’s 10-week accelerator program. 

Edwards encouraged the cohort to be receptive to the all-encompassing feedback that they’ll receive – from mentors, peers, and potential users alike – and to consider those insights with an open mind, a propensity to continually adapt, and a healthy mix of pride and humility.  For Edwards, his own personal idea of success occurs each time he hears user testimony about how kaleo’s products have saved a life in a moment of crisis.  For the iLab’s 2017 crop of promising ventures, witnessing him describe those moments provides great inspiration as they search for their own kaleo, or calling, and strive to define success on their own terms this summer.