Scientists as Entrepreneurs: Recognizing their potential and commercializing the passion for science

Science and business, many of us thinks do not fit together and some even refers it as a huge culture clash. We imagine a scientist to be working in the lab with test tubes or operating some instruments! But yes, these days as I mentioned in my earlier post, they are coming out of their comfort zone and exploring careers outside academia. And why should not they? We saw entrepreneur legends like Richard and Maurice McDonald or Steve Jobs who do not hold a college degree but established the businesses, now even kids are familiar with.With a PhD, one has the capability to think independently and differently. Well, without getting into the controversy of the degrees one possesses, the point here is any individual with inherent self-confidence and willingness to take risks has a chance of becoming a successful entrepreneur. Till decades ago, scientists generated an idea, executed the research, and disseminated their results largely through publications or patents. Many scientists essentially comprehend that their discoveries could translate into important, very profitable entrepreneurial enterprises but actually never dared to take risks. But now that paradigm has shifted. Today, young researchers and scientists are recognizing their passion and taking their work beyond publications and patents and commercializing resulting technologies. But simply making a discovery or patenting an invention or a technique is not only the prerequisite for a start-up company. Bringing an idea or invention to commercialization and establishing a successful company requires altogether a different set of skills and knowledge than doing the actual science.

Government support for science entrepreneurs:

To help scientists get the necessary skills, National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (USA), American Chemical Society (USA), National Science & Technology Entrepreneurship Development, Technology Business Incubator supported by Department of Science and Technology (India), Department of Biotechnology (India), entrepreneur centers within many business schools and other groups are stepping up with financial aid and training courses and other resources. Plenty of online resources and websites “The Silicon Alley Entrepreneurs Club (SAEC)”, Kauffman Foundation, American Chemical Society initiative called “Entrepreneurial Resources Center” are headed and maintained by successful scientists turn entrepreneurs to provide support to budding entrepreneurs. Similarly, government and universities are encouraging scientists and researchers in academic settings to take up initiatives to sell what their mind thinks are innovative or they discover something in the lab for that matter. But, before scientists can take advantage of the government assistance, it is important that they critically assess their personal goals and the state of their innovation or technology they intent to market.

Challenges of scientists turning entrepreneurs:

Scientists trained in laboratories typically have a passion for science and not business. Decision of a scientist turning an entrepreneur requires acquiring new skills and taking risks for a significant transition into a new career path. Increased time demands, finding the right people to partner with in the start-up, worrying about venture capital, and giving up absolute control and ownership of the technology are few limitations which scientists aren’t so comfortable with.

Before starting anything, scientists need to ask a core set of questions about what they want to commercialize: Is there a growing market need? If yes, does the technology provide the solution to that need? Does anyone else have a better cost-effective solution? And finally, can enough capital be generated to cover the cost of bringing the technology to market and appealing the investors to invest?

Beyond these market-based limitations, scientists need to know a series of reality-check questions. How close is their technology successful in reaching market? If one still have a lot of unanswered questions and research to do, it is better to stay in the lab and wait a little more to achieve that confidence. Scientists also need to mull over whether they have a rational plan in place to effectively commercialize their idea or technology and how much it is going to cost! Addressing these questions is even more complicated for therapeutic innovations in life sciences or medical research because of the regulatory hurdles (Clearing clinical trials and other ethical issues) which needs to be well thought-out. And, perhaps most importantly, scientists must appraise if they have a perfect team in place with all the expertise needed to take the technology successfully to market. Explicitly, scientists will need to associate with business and legal professionals to launch the ambitious start-up. And last but not the least; the route to venture capital should be the prime thing, scientists really need to have in place. Good luck!