Will Rosellini knows how to prepare and perform in pressure situations. He knows that making a good pitch is but one step in a long process, whether you are a major league pitching prospect or the chief executive of a neurological technology company.
The former Arizona Diamondback draft pick commands a different mound these days as CEO of MicroTransponder Inc., a Dallas-based company developing a wireless neurostimulation system for the treatment of chronic pains and several other neurological indications. It is 31-year-old Rosellini’s second startup—he sold the first, a successful onsite dental treatment company—far removed from the baseball diamonds he once thought held his future.
In 2009, Rosellini was named Graduate Student Entrepreneur of the Year by the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, a global network of more than 7,300 business owners in 42 countries. “Raising substantial amounts of capital and multiple NIH grants, Rosellini has shown remarkable skill in managing several neuroscience research initiatives to develop new products that are commercially viable,” EO said in announcing the award. “More impressively, he has run the company while simultaneously working on his Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of Texas at Dallas.”
Rosellini, a member of USA’s 1995 Silver Medal and 1997 Bronze Medal Junior Olympic teams, attended Vanderbilt University on a baseball scholarship before transferring to Oklahoma State University, where his team played in the 1999 College World Series.
Drafted by the Diamondbacks, Rosellini soon realized he faced a long, arduous journey to Major League Baseball, so he walked away at age 22. Returning to college, he has earned seven degrees at various institutions—including a JD, an MBA, and master’s degrees in computational biology and in neuroscience.
While working on his MBA, Rosellini read about robotic arm developments and became fascinated with the subject as well as research being done by UT Dallas associate professor Larry Cauller, who directs the university’s critical connections lab. Cauller had invented a wireless transponder that interfaces with cellular material, which became the starting point for MicroTransponder. While retaining close ties to the university with its research lab on campus, MicroTransponder is working to perfect an injectable implant about the size of a grain of rice that one day could take the place of large neural stimulators used to treat chronic pain and other neurological disorders.
Rosellini, who has one of the company’s experimental implants embedded in what was his pitching arm, talked with SUCCESS recently about the road that led him to neuroscience.
SUCCESS: How did you identify and pursue your new career path after baseball?
Will Rosellini: I was back in school trying to figure out what I wanted to do. For 15 years, I’d been thinking about how to make my arm deliver a pitch optimally, and then in 2004 I read about a government project about making a robotic arm that hooks directly into your nervous system, which for me was an instant click.
What qualities that served you as an athlete are assets in your new role?
WR: It’s exactly the same—fast fail. A pitcher has to know on any given day, inning-by-inning, pitch-by-pitch, what his best pitch is, what is working and what is not. You cannot just stick with one thing and do it over and over again, or you get very quick feedback—you are out of the game.
If I have one skill as an entrepreneur, it is that I’m very quick to make a mistake and fix it, or find the right person who can make it go away.
What lessons did you learn from launching and then selling your first venture, Texas Onsite Dental?
WR: So much. A couple of things come to mind: The team is going to go at the speed of the boss, and if you’re a bottleneck that slows everything down, then that’s a problem. Simultaneously, if you are not teaching your team how to do their job and getting out of the way, you will fail. The focus is to get the business working without you as quickly as possible. I did that well and poorly, at times. By the end, the business was working smoothly without my daily involvement, which I consider a success.
How did you tackle the big learning curve that this field required?
WR: At the time, it was a catastrophe, a dramatic failure. I was an Olympic and college athlete, left college early as a pro prospect, and at one time I had Alex Rodriquez’ agent. Then I was done at 22. Everyone knew me as the pitcher. When I stopped, all that attention went away overnight and I was considered a failure. It became very easy at that point, as a retired, washed-up baseball player, to try new things—because if I failed again, nobody cared. I’d gotten the big failure out of the way [which] allowed me to take chances that no one else would take. There was no pressure. Today, everyone thinks of me as a scientist, not a failed baseball player.
How did you focus on neurostimulation?
WR: It was obvious that it was hard enough that no one had done it before. Sitting here in the Telecom Corridor, where Texas Instruments and other electronic companies are building super-small technology for consumer electronics, it seemed to me you could put these things in the body and have more control than a drug can have.
How did you benefit from your academic support system?
WR: My first business plan for Texas Onsite Dental was written in an entrepreneurship startup program at UT Dallas. This school is exploding with talent, ideas and energy, and it has made it a priority to not just have good ideas but to translate them into programs serving patients or products or whatever.
What is your ultimate goal?
WR: I have an eye toward earning a meaningful return for my investors, of course, and reaching a commercial endpoint. But I spent so much time in nursing homes with Texas Onsite Dental that I see an entire generation of baby boomers-plus robbed of their neurological function. Getting good medical devices out to that generation of people who have lost their function is what keeps me passionate.
You’ve said that your job now is to constantly push to break your business. What do you mean by that?
WR: I need to evaluate whether new information that comes in breaks our old assumptions. Just because we spent 100 hours thinking about a plan months ago and put a lot of effort into it, that doesn’t mean it makes sense even three months later. So you have to try to break it every time. If the plan holds up to such intense scrutiny, then you have a good one. If you are not trying to break it and find those holes you are not working your plan hard enough.
You’ve said it is more important to make 100 mistakes rapidly than to make one right choice. Why is the fail-first mentality important?
WR: You’re going to be too slow to get to information. I read somewhere that a CEO gets 10 percent of the information needed to make a choice. Failure brings information into the corporation.
What do you find inspiring?
WR: I loved watching [former major league pitcher] Curt Schilling in the bullpen in Spring Training with his catcher. It wasn’t that he was a perfect pitcher. His systematic approach to the process was perfect…. Whether someone is doing brain surgery on animals, a surgeon at the top of his or her game in the clinic, or an IP attorney spending three days on an idea, I love seeing a person who has the perfect blend of talent and preparation in their area of performance.