Starting Up: Entrepreneurship for PGRs
PGRs are passionate, self-motivated, independent thinkers, as well as project managers, decision makers, and hard workers that have the tenacity to get back up after failure until they achieve their desired results. Great attributes for being a good researcher, but I’d argue that they also make excellent entrepreneurs! The PhD journey is a road of discovery, pushing the boundaries of current knowledge and getting to know your personal strengths. Besides improving the collective knowledge of your field, some of your research may actually have potential for practical application or commercialisation. You may investigate a disease and come across the possibility of a treatment, develop a piece of tech or an application, or find that you are excellent at writing, managing, or teaching and could turn this into a service. But how do you develop your ideas into a viable business plan? How do you protect your intellectual property? How do you assemble a team and get stakeholders on board? And how do you attract funding? In this blog, I will point you to resources that can help you develop your business idea and gather advice from (former) PGRs that have started on the entrepreneurial path!
As always, the web is a vast knowledge base. EdX, an online learning platform founded by Harvard and MIT, has loads of courses from high-profile universities focussed on various elements of entrepreneurship that you can complete at your own pace to fill in any business knowledge gaps that you may have. But did you know that the UofG also has its own Student Enterprise office? They can provide you with legal counselling, business and financial planning, sourcing funding, and connect you to external advisors. Their website provides lots of resources to help you get your business plan in order and they also organise workshops & events.
But there are options outside of the university, too. I recently went to a mini-MBA course on starting a biotech business (this article in Science mag provides a good summary), where I met Mantas Matjusaitis. He is a final year PGR at the University of Edinburgh and co-founded CellAge, a synthetic biology start-up in the field of ageing. I asked him about the process from coming up with this idea to founding the company.
“It was all about a chance. I always followed what was happening in the ageing research field and some exciting studies came out showing potential therapeutic targets for healthy ageing. At the same time, I was involved in the organisation of a conference with Innovation Forum and one of the participating companies used a technology that I realised was the missing link for us. I just connected the dots! After due diligence and discussions with people who have experience in commercialising science, I took the leap of faith to get this off the ground. I have always been heavily involved in activities outside of my PhD and this helped me enormously in terms of connections and transferable skills. Currently we have raised £100,000 and are halfway to starting product development. The key take home message is that you just have to do it – you will not feel comfortable and you will always think that you are not ready yet. But you just have to take a shot and start pushing from one uncertainty to another. And then things start to happen and the picture will slowly come together! So don’t be afraid of the unknown and chaos – embrace it.”
Bulbs by Jonas Bengtsson via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Founding a company obviously requires a lot of time and dedication, so I asked Mantas how he combines this with his PhD research. “Time management is key here. I think we become more productive with every PhD year and you can make more efficient decisions in your research. But of course you still spend 50-60 hours a week on your research, so you have to cut other activities. It is a sacrifice, so you really need to have passion, but there are some strategies I used. First, surround yourself with advisors and make sure you have good co-founders that see the vision and work hard too; otherwise it can be very lonely. Second, delegate! Make use of websites like fiverr to prep your logo, outsource aspects of social media, you can even crowdfund videos. Also, the university is full of eager students who want to gain experience by volunteering at start-ups. This is a win-win situation, but choose people carefully. My last tip is the 80/20 rule, which states that you basically spend 20% of time to finish 80% of a task. For many tasks that is enough. Don’t try to make everything perfect, as you will need to adjust things as you go along anyway. Learn to judge what is most important.”
To gather more advice, I had a chat with Barbara Chaneton. We used to work together in the lab, and after finishing her PhD she moved to Cambridge and founded the technology start-up Aksion. I asked her how she knew she wanted to become an entrepreneur. “When I started my PhD, I had a very romantic view of research that was about discovery and creating knowledge. But along the way, I realised I had more passion for applying that knowledge. I think a limitation of academia is its focus on publishing papers, but once I published my papers, what ever happened with them? Maybe a hundred people would read them once in their lives, but I wondered what the point of that was, what was the outcome? I wanted to use my energy to contribute something to the world.” She doesn’t feel like she is no longer a scientist, though. “I am completely in touch with everything I learned during my PhD. I read papers every day! This is beautiful to me, because it keeps me in touch with all the new developments and I do not feel like my PhD time was a waste at all. When you are talking to clients, you need to understand their needs and the questions they have, and your PhD provides you with a good base to keep up. And when you are selling the philosophy of your company to business developers or investors, it also definitely contributes to your credibility to have a PhD.”
Just do it! by darwin Bell via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
We discussed how PGRs could get started themselves. “A company will not magically appear. The problem with having a good idea is that someone else probably had it already. Ideas are worth nothing: you need to show that something is working and can be applied. Then you need to get in touch with people who know how to build a business. Don’t try to do everything on your own. It seems attractive to surround yourself with other excited PhD students, but it is a better idea to connect with experienced people that know more than you. This voice of experience can come through advisers, mentors, investors, or getting an experienced CEO on board. Don’t be scared of sharing and finding partners. I actually learned about the value of collaboration during my PhD, as I could not have achieved all of it by myself. Use the right legal tools to protect your work, sure, but you need to partner up. Building your business team is tricky, but you need to get it right, because your team is the key to success.”
Barbara also has some advice to share for current PGRs. “When I was still in Glasgow, I participated in biotech competitions and our team also did some consulting for companies. You have to invest time and try things beside your PhD, even unpaid, because this is the only way to test if you like something and have talent for it.” I did some research and found that there are several big competitions in Scotland, such as the Converge Challenge and Scottish EDGE (for a handy overview, check the database of the Scottish Institute for Enterprise), with even more opportunities in the wider UK.
Marisa Nacke, a fellow PGR in my institute, has just participated in the accelerator competition BioStars. Her team is founding HyperC, a company producing compounds for use in a new diagnostic technique called hyperpolarised MRI, and they won second place! I asked her what was the most important thing that she learned during the competition. “Getting accepted into BioStars gave us the opportunity to attend seminars about product development, Intellectual Property, team building, and business plan writing. We were also mentored by experts from the biotech industry, patent lawyers, and successful entrepreneurs. By writing up a business plan, I learned how to develop a project management plan and risk assessments, for example. I had to read a lot about all these business terms, but you quickly realise how much information is out there to teach yourself, and at least to me, how interesting it is to learn about a different way of thinking!”
idea by Pimthida via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
I asked her why she would recommend that busy PGRs take the time to participate in competitions like this. “By developing an idea from your research into a profitable product, you might start to see your research from a different angle. Like Barbara, I really like that entrepreneurship gives you the potential of improving people’s lives by applying your science. This is extremely motivating! One huge benefit of taking part in those programs is purely that you get to network with people. And if you are thinking of alternative careers, this is the place to swap business cards with some amazing and successful people. Of course, it is a lot of trial and error to create a start-up company, but why can’t your idea be the next big thing? And even if it doesn’t turn out to grow into a (big) company, just taking part and receiving mentorship through these competitions is like taking a mini-MBA course in a much more fun way. It is a way to create your own opportunity to develop transferable skills for future (non-academic) employers that look for experience in project management, team work, and a general interest in industry work environments.”
Chatting with these entrepreneurial PGRs gave me a lot of energy! I think a key message is that there is not one specific career path that fits all PGRs, and your PhD is an excellent time to discover what you would like to do and develop the relevant skills for your future. Your research is important and should be your main priority, but personal and professional development is a key component of the PhD degree, too. Don’t sell yourself short by spending your time doing something you are not passionate about! Get out there, figure out what motivates you, and then turn it into your career plan. I’m not saying this is easy, but as a PGR you do have the research skills, creativity, and problem-solving capacity to make this happen! There are so many opportunities out there and as my friends have all said: you just have to go for it.
Have you figured out your next career move yet? Any questions for Mantas, Barbara, and Marisa? Get in touch via the comments or over on Twitter (@UofG_PGRBlog)!