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The Secret to Cultivating a Young Entrepreneur

Jack Andraka is a typical high school student in many ways. He enjoys mountain biking and white water rafting; he likes watching "Family Guy" and "The Simpsons" on TV. He also, however, likes science. And it's a good thing.

At 15 years old, Jack created a new diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer that is 28 times faster, 26,000 times less expensive and over 100 times more sensitive than the current diagnostic tests. If that's not enough, the test also works for ovarian and lung cancer as well. Not bad for a kid who doesn't even have his driver's license.


His diagnostic test won first prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which is the world's largest pre-college competition of its kind.

What enabled Jack to achieve this incredible feat?

1. He was solving a real problem and a real need.
As a kid, Jack had a close family friend who fought and eventually died from cancer. This was gripping for him, and left him struggling with how to respond. As he watched his family grieve, it ignited him to think about answers. The problem was personal and this turned the heat up on his desire to solve it.

2. He has a curious and creative mind.
In school, Jack had displayed a curious and hungry mind. This sent him on a hunt to figure out current ways the medical world tested for cancer and how to improve it. His solution came to him during biology class when he was secretly reading an article about nanotubes while his teacher spoke about antibodies. Jack said the two ideas came together in his head, and he combined them to create the test.

3. He possesses a tenacious spirit.
As you can imagine, the answer didn't come overnight. Jack used what he found through Google searches and free online science journals to develop a plan and a budget. He contacted 200 people including the National Institutes of Health with a proposal to work in their labs. Jack got 199 rejections before his idea finally got accepted by a professor at Johns Hopkins University.

4. He cultivated an optimistic faith.
What enabled him to do it? How did he beat out billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies with his test? Perhaps as a young person with no experience, he hadn't yet learned what everyone else in the industry "knew couldn't be done." He is so young he didn't know enough to doubt himself. The whole world lay in front of him.

5. He has an authentic perspective.
What I love most about Jack is his modesty. In an interview before the fair, he said, "I'm incredibly excited. It's like the Olympics of science fairs. It's just amazing to be here." In the end, he actually won it, amounting to $100,000 in prize money. Jack said he planned to put the money toward college tuition.

This is what we must cultivate in students. Think about Jack the next time you think a problem can't be solved. Or, the next time you're rejected by the powers that be. Or...the next time a student asks you to help out with his project. I'm just sayin'...

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Managing the Toughest Generation


photo credit: phalinn via photopin cc


  1. Joseph Lalonde on December 5, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    It’s amazing what can happen when two ideas collide at the same time. Imagine if he had been caught by the teacher beforehand. We may not have had this discovery.

    • Tim Elmore on December 6, 2013 at 3:30 pm

      So very true, Joe. We may never know what could have happened if he was interrupted when those two ideas were colliding.

      This also reminds me of one of my favorite leadership habits: grabbing a hold of opportunities before they are gone. Imagine if he never did anything with those ideas when they collided.

  2. Onyi on December 11, 2013 at 8:47 am

    Great write up Tim, in regards to entrepreneurship, I recently wrote; An entrepreneur is a leader of excellence, trailblazer and pioneer who constantly brings change to their generation. © O. Anyado 2013.

    • Tim Elmore on December 13, 2013 at 10:00 am

      Thank you for sharing that, Onyi. I love how you phrased it!

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The Secret to Cultivating a Young Entrepreneur