Lessons from David Narrow

Though I normally use this blog to talk about science, I want to briefly compliment a friend, David Narrow.

I am taking a brief break from what I should be doing to celebrate a series of victories today.  This morning, I was told a manuscript I co-authored was accepted for publication, when I got home from work, I got a letter from the IRS saying that the 501c3 status of San Antonio Science, Inc. has been officially granted (effective 10/19/15), and then I got a call from my good friend, David Narrow.  I have known David for 8 years now.  I know him as a friend, classmate, and business partner (co-founder of MonoMano 4 years ago).  Since graduating (probably with the highest GPA in our program), he has served as CEO of two companies.  The first, is MonoMano (www.monomanocycling.com) and the second is Sonavex (http://www.sonavex.com/company.html).  He was also recently named one of Forbes' 30 under 30.  To those of us that know him well, we know that it is wrong to think there are 29 other people that deserve to be in the same article as Dave.  We also know that he is too humble to acknowledge that.

Now I just want to quickly tell the story of MonoMano.  Undergrad biomedical engineers at the University of Rochester spend their entire senior year working on a real engineering problem with a real "client".  The only reason that I put client in quotes is because we didn't get paid for our work.  I was paired with Dominic Marino, David Narrow, Sara Hutchinson, and Martin Szeto and asked to design a bicycle for upper limb amputees.  Working with them was one of the most valuable experiences of my life, because it is impossible to not learn some humility when you are working with a team of people as smart as they were.  

When we started on the problem, we looked around and found out that someone had already (sort of) solved the problem we wanted to.  The only problem was that their solution was custom built recumbent tricycles that cost as much a Kia.  This wasn't practical for most amputees, so we set to work to design a product that would work with any bike or trike off the shelf so that individuals who had experienced an upper limb amputation could enjoy the sport of cycling.  We came up with a rough design, loaded a trike into Sara's minivan, and went to Lowe's. That day, we assembled our Beta prototype using wrought iron plumbing pipe in the plumbing aisle at Lowe's. This was the prototype that we took to the Rochester Rehab Adaptive Sports Expo.  I couldn't attend this event, yet I still get choked up when I tell the story that came out of it.  A stroke survivor with hemiparesis on his right side came up to try our trike.  He was struggling to walk using his walker, and it was difficult to get him onto the trike, because he had a hard time getting his leg over the frame of the bike (you can imagine how this might be difficult when your right arm and right leg won't do what you want them too).  Eventually, he got situated, and strapped in, and started zipping around the expo.  He came back out of breath after his short ride.  First, he told us that it was as easy to turn left as it was to turn right.  This may not seem like a big deal to most, but imagine if you aren't very good at stepping with your right leg.  The next thing he did was ask to purchase the handlebar.  This was our only one.... and it was made of plumbing pipe..... and it was not very sturdy.  We told him that we would make a much better one.... and we did.  He opened our eyes to two things.  First, there were a lot of people that needed this (5.3 million people in the US alone withe unilateral weakness resulting from a stroke).  Second, this was important.  We had been treating it as a class project and suddenly it became a moral imperative that we design a product that can help as many people as possible.  Our mission expanded from designing the bike to figuring out how to put it in the hand of everyone that needed it.  We created a mission statement, and a business plan, and a pitch deck, and we won business plans, and we invested all our winnings into starting our company.  Our goal was to make this product available to everyone so that the sport of cycling would be accessible to anyone, and so that individuals without many options would have access to outdoor exercise, leisure, and independence that they could enjoy with family and friends.

We put in a lot of work, and had a lot of success, but it was coming at an awkward time.  Everyone had plans, and goals, and none of them involved bicycles.  For a while we did weekly meetings via skype from all corners of the country, but it gradually slowed down until the company barely existed.  Eventually, I was engaged (lasted a year), and I didn't feel like I had time to devote my free time to running an adaptive cycling company. I gave the majority of my shares to Dave Narrow and Martin Szeto so that they could keep the company going.  And he did.  He slogged along in his free time taking on interns and selling trikes, occasionally calling me for a favor with a client in Texas.

Today, he called me and asked permission to bring on our first full-time CEO.  He didn't need to ask my permission, but he did.  And Dave has always been like that.  For the first time in 2 years, I am confident that we will achieve what we set out to do with MonoMano.  We will make independence, exercise, and leisure a possibility for millions of people through the sport of cycling, and it is all thanks to Dave.

I have been working on another project for the past 3 years, and I am confident that I can explain it to Dave over lunch, and he can figure out in an afternoon how to do it better than me, but he also knows that he isn't the right person for every job, and he values the contributions of everyone he works with.  When you work with Dave, you know that you are indispensable, because he understands what everyone brings to the table and takes every opportunity to tell you the value of it.  He is the smartest person in the room yet everyone he works with knows that they are the right person for their job.

Thanks Dave.  I'm already looking forward to our next project.