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.