For over 20 years, Mark Fasciano has built and run a variety of software and biotech companies. His current venture, Rover Diagnostics, is a Columbia University spin-out that aims to make testing for COVID-19 and other infectious diseases faster, more accessible, and less costly. Prior to Rover, Mark served as co-founder and CEO of Clarapath, a biotech startup that is now part of Northwell Health.
Mark first entered the world of entrepreneurship in 1996, after graduating from the University of Chicago with a PhD in Artificial Intelligence, when he and a classmate founded FatWire Software. The earliest-to-market web content management system, FatWire grew to a multi-million dollar business that was eventually acquired by Oracle. Mark went on to lead a tech incubator that funded businesses like TouchBistro and Crowdster, an early crowdfunding platform that raised millions of dollars for nonprofits.
As a college student majoring in Computer Science at Cornell University, Mark took a class with a legendary professor that got him hooked on AI. He loved acquiring techniques that enabled computers to do what people do, such as the genetic algorithm he created for his senior project that learned how to play gin rummy. When Mark graduated from Cornell in 1990, there was no way to pursue AI outside of academia, which is why he enrolled in grad school at the U of CI. But always intending to make a more pragmatic impact, he eventually found his way into the business world when the opportunity arose.
In addition to growing businesses, Mark enjoys stretching his intellect and imagination through books of all types and by creating works of art. He prides himself on developing positive work cultures that both challenge and nurture his teams, and on balancing work demands with being an involved and loving husband and father. A New Yorker by birth and at heart, Mark identifies strongly with the city’s diversity of peoples and passions, and its constant push towards excellence. Despite his wife’s occasional pining for warmer climates, Mark insists he won’t leave for more than the length of a vacation.
Our Interview with Mark Fasciano
Question: What’s the most important thing we should know about you?
Mark Fasciano: Even though I’m typically “full steam ahead” when it comes to work and career, I value other spheres of life just as much, striving for excellence as a husband and father, an artist and a thinker, and a health and fitness buff.
Question: Name the most impactful lesson you learned from failure.
Mark Fasciano: When I was running FatWire Software, we invested a lot of time trying to sell our content management system to General Motors. We made it quite far in the process before losing the account to a much bigger competitor, Documentum. It was a huge disappointment, because we knew that our product was a better fit for GM because of its scalability and dynamic publishing capabilities.
The loss felt like failure at the time. But fast forward two years and Documentum is asking us to help them fix the account! GM ended up replacing Documentum’s product with ours, and the deal ultimately became the biggest deal FatWire ever closed. So the lesson I learned is that, when something appears to be a failure, just wait a while. The upside will show itself eventually.
Question: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Mark Fasciano: Throughout the years of building start-ups, I’ve been able to create mission-driven yet supportive work environments that helped people grow and prosper. It is particularly satisfying to have sponsored a number of immigrant visas for employees who eventually got their green cards and US citizenship.
I appreciate the “win-win” of bringing wonderful people into the country who will make positive contributions while achieving a better quality of life. My grandparents immigrated to the US from Italy, and I’m one of the beneficiaries of that decision. I like knowing that the support I’ve given to recent immigrants through my businesses can affect many future generations for the better.
Question: Name a tool you use for work that you can’t live without.
Mark Fasciano: Lately I’ve been singing the praises of GoodNotes, “the note-taking app that turns your iPad into digital paper.” I use it to sketch out presentations or storyboards, and for early product design ideas. It really came in handy when developing Rover LightSpeed, the rapid COVID-19 test instrument that is the focus of my current biotech company. Another great work tool–less technological but equally important–is the 175 mg of caffeine I get each day from my pre-workout drink.
Question: What is your favorite hobby and why?
Mark Fasciano: Figure drawing and painting are my therapy. They provide a sense of calm and control that is rare in the high pressure, unpredictable world of start-ups. With figure drawing, every model is unique–challenging to draw in their own way. I always aim to capture not just accurate lines and proportions, but the essence and emotional states of the human beings standing before me.
Painting poses a different set of challenges–like mixing the colors just right–and allows more room for imagination. But, as with figure drawing, the mood of what I create is primary. I suppose I’m drawn to these hobbies because they provide a nice balance of highly technical and looser creative tasks, just like my businesses.
Question: What excited you the most about your industry right now?
Mark Fasciano: In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, what drives us the most at Rover is our potential to make a big positive impact on public health. We are developing and gearing up to manufacture a point-of-care (e.g., at the doctor’s office) PCR test instrument that will make testing for the virus faster, less expensive, and more accessible to the public.
Question: What concerns you most about your industry right now?
Mark Fasciano: Given the huge global need for COVID-19 testing, our biggest concern is delays in the supply chain when it comes to test instrument components and supplies. We are feeling the relentless time pressure to produce enough testing capability in the face of this pervasive threat to life and well-being. And we hope that production can keep up with demand.
Question: What tips do you have for getting a seat at the table?
Mark Fasciano: As a serial entrepreneur, I’ve always been of the opinion that the best way to get a seat at the table is to build the table yourself. Not only are you guaranteed a seat, but you get to decide whom to invite to dinner.
Question: What book has made the biggest impact on your life?
Mark Fasciano: For a book lover it’s really hard to pick just one, but Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl has a profound universal message that I think about often. To me the idea that, even in the bleakest of circumstances, the mind is free to shape its own reality is very compelling.
Question: What would you consider to be the perfect day?
Mark Fasciano: Consistent with how I answered the first question, my perfect day would involve a little bit of everything: a little romance, some intellectual growth, a work challenge to surmount, and a fun physical activity. The day would end with a great big meal with close friends and family. And it would all happen on a beach in St. Barth’s.