Entrepreneurship offers a unique opportunity to continue exploring and researching while learning new skills and tackling challenges that will dramatically enhance your career. However, it is paramount to recognize the stark differences between life in academia vs. life as an entrepreneur. Here are some examples of approaches that may need to change as you embark on your entrepreneurial journey.
As scientists, we like to gather as much data as possible before making a decision. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible in entrepreneurship. You will need to adapt and become comfortable making tough critical decisions with only 50% of the information.
Presentations & Discussions
Whenever I read a paper, attend a conference lecture, or make academic presentations, the same setup is used: background, rationale, results, discussion, and finally, material/methods. In the business world, the goal is to share the most important information in a short amount of time. You are expected to concisely explain the problem you are solving, your solution, and how you will achieve results.
Scope of Work
In research, we have our primary project, and we immerse ourselves in that topic, working days, weeks, and months with an intense singular focus. In contrast, entrepreneurs will need to maximize their limited time by conducting multiple initiatives concurrently. Learning how to effectively switch context between subjects to solve problems is a skill that will help you tremendously. One minute you may be engineering and the next you may have to close a sales deal.
While in academia, there are few things you can do to prepare yourself for this transition.
1. Contribute to lab members’ projects or collaborate with other labs.
The reason I’d advocate for this is that it forces you to work with other people/groups. Academia can often lead to working solo, which prevents you from learning the critical soft-skills needed to succeed in a team-based environment when there are multiple chefs in the kitchen. In entrepreneurship, great teamwork and effective communication can make the difference between success and failure.
2. Leverage your network and ask questions
If you’re looking to build a business in the life-sciences sector, you are in the prime spot to do some target market research. Reach into your network, speak with your colleagues, and investigate your business problem. There is no better time to do this. Scientists are far more likely to answer your questions as a graduate student than when you cold-call them as an entrepreneur.
3. Reading literature or books about building start-ups are helpful, but the best learning comes from experience. Find a start-up in the industry where you want to build your business and work there part-time. Listen, learn, and observe. Pick up on how teams self-organize, how company culture develops, and keep an eye out for solid work practices. How are meetings structured to maximize efficiency? How are large teams coordinating their work? How are company leaders communicating with each other? When it’s time to break out on your own, you’ll have a point of reference for how processes work. Stitch together practices that worked well, and learn from the mistakes you’ve made during this experience.
For those in academia who have already begun their transition into entrepreneurship, there are two important considerations you should make before diving in.
Intellectual Property (IP)
The very first thing you need to do is read through your institution’s intellectual property (IP) agreement to find a clause that details who really owns the IP.
Most institutions stipulate that the IP generated within the scope of your employment belongs to the institution. Here are some things to consider:
Feasibility of Entrepreneurship
Secondly, you should look to sort out the logistics of the transition. Prior to your capital raise, you'll be responsible for the business's operating costs and your own living expenses. All businesses are different, but I'd recommend preparing for 8-12 months with no income.
Transferable skills and interests
In academia, we are passionate about our research and motivated to contribute to the scientific community. This is one of the greatest things about being a scientist. But there is more than one way to make an impact. Entrepreneurship in life-sciences provides a unique opportunity for us to solve problems that the community faces while staying close to our research roots. At BioBox, our team remains deeply connected to our academic origins and are committed to solving the challenges that we faced while in academia. The days are long, and the pressure is high, but it is a feeling that we are used to during our time grinding in the lab and spending countless hours trying to get our experiments to work.
One of the best things you learn in academia is the importance of self-sufficiency. In your research project, you are most likely the single champion and key driver of that project. Your years of work in a self-directed and independent environment prepares you very well for the challenges you will face when building your own business.
In many ways, academia is an excellent training ground for entrepreneurship. For those who are considering breaking out and building their own business, I can assure you that it will be one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll have in your career.
A wave of controversy and outrage followed the recent publication of a study by AlShebi et al. from the New York University of Abu Dhabi on November 17th. In their Nature Communications paper, the authors analyzed 3 million mentor–protégé pairs to assess the impact of mentorship quality on the future scientific career of protégés. In addition, the gender of both mentors and mentees was analyzed as a potential factor affecting the quality of such mentorships.
The study found that increasing the number of female mentors was associated with a reduction in post-mentorship impact (fewer articles published) by female mentees. Likewise, a decrease in citations of the papers published by female-female mentor pairs was reported during the mentorship period. It concluded by saying that 'opposite-gender mentorship may actually increase the impact of women who pursue a scientific career' and that current diversity policies should be revisited.
Shortly after its release, a myriad of scientists from a diverse range of backgrounds expressed their concerns and/or disagreements on social media about the interpretation of the data, claiming the paper amplified every bias experienced by female academics nowadays. Unsurprisingly, two days later, the journal indicated the paper was under investigation. Finally, a bit over a month after its publication, the paper was retracted on December 21st. The authors attributed the retraction to issues in the validation of 'key measures' identified by the reviewers. The journal itself added that this experience reinforced their commitment to equity and inclusion in research, and in support, they will be launching further initiatives to support female scientists.
Despite being a relatively large study, most of the criticism was directed towards the methodology and criteria used in the study, with emphasis on two particular aspects: the use of co-authorships as a measure for informal mentorship and the use of scientific publications (or citations of those publications) as a metric for success.
The other side of the equation
After its release, several articles collecting the opinion of experts and established scientists in the field have been released. But, what about the opinion of the other side of the equation: the mentees and protégés? To gain insight into junior scientists' experiences and opinions on the impact of mentorships in their careers, I conducted interviews with researchers or professionals in the early stage of their careers.
Pina Knauff, Dr. rer.nat/ Life Sciences
Pina is a Postdoctoral researcher in the field of Molecular neurogenetics at Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin in Germany. She has been active in the field for nine years, during which she has had five mentors. From those, two of them were women. When asked about the differences between having a male mentor over a female mentor, she explained that her female mentors were more empathetic and invested in providing guidance in her experience. Dr. Knauff has published five articles throughout her career, two of which were published under female mentorships.
Edna Gómez Fernández, PhD/ Economy
Edna is currently a freelance consultant. She completed her doctoral degree in social sciences at the University of Arizona, focusing on government and public policy and economics. Before leaving academia, she was active for 12 years. Throughout this time, she had only one female mentor out of seven. When choosing her mentors, gender was not a determinant factor for Edna. She believes that choosing a mentor who is an expert in the field that aims for efficient and professional communication is more important. As she did not publish under the supervision of a female mentor, Edna believes that the publishing process can benefit from having a male mentor. However, she also expressed that her last mentorships experiences - all of them with male mentors - influenced her decision to leave academia.
Ethiraj Ravindran, PhD/ Life Sciences
Ethiraj is a postdoctoral researcher also working at Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin. He has been active for 12 years in the field of Clinical Neuroscience. From his experience, he noticed that female mentors take their roles more seriously and that personal growth is also considered. He has felt more encouraged by his current female mentor and confirms that this experience played a significant role when deciding to continue in academia after his Ph.D.
Lucía Trías, MSc/ Design
Lucía is an independent design researcher. She recently completed her Master's degree at the Anhalt University in Dessau, Germany. During her 11 years of career, her first mentor - a female mentor – played a major role in Lucía's decision to further pursue a degree in academia. She thinks that in her area of research, decolonial design, having a male mentor can be detrimental as the female perspective mostly influences the field. 'In my experience, my female mentors exhibited more openness and a broader capacity to listen to critical thoughts without taking things personal,' she added. 'Accepting mistakes was also something that my male mentors were not good at, and I felt this had something to do with arrogance and feeling of superiority in their position.'
Success in academia: what matters the most?
Conversations regarding which factors define a successful academic path have long been on the table. Traditionally, academic success is measured in the form of research performance. Yet, career success is composed of two components: objective and subjective. The objective success is determined by the system, is measurable, and therefore more public. The subjective success is personal; it reflects one's own sense of career. A recent study by Sutherland K. A. found that personal success is changing among early-career academics, who report factors such as contribution to society or influencing students' lives as better metrics of success.
In this regard, interviewees also agree that the number of publications or citations should not be used to quantify success. Assessing the quality of mentorship based on the end product prioritizes the objective component of success. By doing this, AlShebli et al. neglected various other factors related to subjective success, including the current climate in academia that is strongly advocating for healthier working environments, where the 'publish or perish' vicious circle is not appealing for the upcoming generation of researchers.
Furthermore, success is often defined differently by men compared to women. Evidence also indicates that male scientists cite themselves more often than women. These, coupled with the reality that women leave academia earlier than men, contribute to the discrepancies in the number of publications between genders. Finally, 'the publishing process can be sometimes shifted by the journals' interest, and this should not diminish the quality of the submitted work' says Dr. Ravindran.
If correctly interpreted, this study could have contributed to the ongoing call for career development strategies that acknowledge the predominant patriarchal environment. Instead, it crashed and burned, demonstrating the importance of drawing proper conclusions and the immediate rejection of anything that perpetuates the systemic biases against women in STEM.
“What made you want to be a Scientist?”
This question always takes me aback. I have been in science so long it’s hard to pinpoint that exact moment where I went from not-a-scientist to the path I’m on now. I was always good at science… but that didn’t make me want to pursue a career in it. After sitting on the question for some time, I realise there isn’t a what that made me want to pursue science, but rather, a who.
Travel back to 2014. My hair is long, my experience isn’t, I’m doing my undergraduate degree in biology, and I am lost. My studies killed my love for the subject. I had such a miserable time that I didn’t see myself staying in science at all. Monthly career fairs on the university lawn showcasing non-science-specific careers; “train for another three years to become an accountant!” - is this all my hard work and studying can give me? I felt lost, unsure as to where my degree could take me. In a bid to work out what I wanted to do, I secured a placement in a lab at University College London (UCL), researching the effects of diet on aging in fruit flies. I (in my naive mind) thought that all I needed was a taste of lab-work, and the answer to my uncertainties would magically reveal itself.
Without a shadow of a doubt, my placement at UCL changed the course of my career. However, this wasn’t because of the technical skills I gained or how good it looked on my CV. Rather, it was the guidance and mentorship I didn’t know I was missing. During my placement, I worked under a post-doc named Adam. He took the time to explain the area of science to me (on many occasions more than once). In the lab, he taught me techniques, and before long, I was proficient enough to collect data for his project. We had frequent discussions about the results and what it meant in the area of research, but most importantly, he gave me the confidence to speak freely and ask questions.
If I had to identify when my path shifted to the science-trajectory, I could pinpoint the exact moment; a conversation I had with Adam one day during my placement. Curious about our methodology, I asked, “How come we only use female flies in these experiments?” “Because the field assumes that males don’t respond in the same way,” he replied. I pondered on that for a bit, “Is there any evidence of this? Has anyone shown it?” “No, but you can be the first!” And that was the birth of My First Project . Prior to that placement, I had hardly been entrusted with a pipette, let alone an entire project. The independence empowered me in an indescribable way.
I spent the whole summer working on my project – discerning the differences between males and females in response to changes in diet. There was no feeling greater than having a tray full of vials labeled with my name. All experimental work I had done before that had been pre-arranged university practicals. I had never had anything with my name! Here I was, being trusted with a full tray!
The following weeks flew by and were the most enjoyable working days I had experienced. I caught the train to London every day with energy and enthusiasm. I would get to work setting up my experimental flies, doing dissections, imaging slides on expensive microscopes, and analysing my data. Adam and I would meet frequently. He would help me with my analysis and truly catapulted my love of programming and data visualisation with R (something I now use every day in my PhD). He would ask questions to challenge me, and we’d have thought-experiments over the implications of my results. After a couple of months, it looked like I had meaningful results!
But most importantly, I would often get praise and told I was doing a good job, not just from Adam but from many members of the lab. In the two years of my undergraduate up to that point, I was only told I wasn’t doing enough; this was a significantly positive experience for my confidence and mental health. Adam’s and the lab’s support also extended far beyond my project; we had many open conversations about my next steps and further education. It was Adam who not only suggested I pursue a Masters but also told me I’d be good at it.
Now, here I am, seven years later, in the final year of my PhD. I may be far away from flies, but I still experience the impact of Adam’s support. He enabled me to see my love and passion for science, to realise I actually have something to offer. At the time, I didn’t realise how much I needed a good mentor to provide inspiration, guidance, and support (both technical and mental).
As I reflect, I can identify the characteristics that I feel make a good mentor:
Patience: Those earlier in their career have less experience and need support.
Two-way Conversation: Exchanging what you both expect from the relationship and what you continually need.
Sharing Experience with openness & honesty to allow learning from one’s mistakes.
Giving Credit & Praise: We are all humans and thrive off encouragement.
Enthusiasm: It’s contagious!
Trust: A mentor is not a babysitter.
It is important to note that while some of these points are universal (I think every mentor should be a good communicator), some are specific to me. Others may require something else from mentorship. Some trainees require motivation, reality checks, etc. This is why honest and frequent conversation of your and your mentor’s needs and expectations is vital for the relationship to flourish.
During my later scientific career, I have been fortunate enough to mentor two lab-placement students, in addition to dozens of academic students, via my job as a tutor. I have utilised everything I learnt from Adam, and other great mentors, to give the best support and guidance I can. At the time of writing, both lab placement students have decided against pursuing lab-based careers, but this makes no difference to me. A successful mentorship doesn’t result in training the next you; from a successful mentorship emerges two people who feel they have grown and developed from the experience.
Don’t get caught thinking that it’s just lab supervisors or training directors who can take on this role. We all have the opportunity to be mentors. You may not think it – but there are those out there for whom your experience is exactly what they are missing.