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THE BLACK HOLE

No jobs in academe? Consider becoming a scientist-entrepreneur

By JONATHAN THON | APR 14 2014

I was recently invited to give a keynote address at the Human Disease Mapping conference at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland that was fully coordinated by a small group of the college’s PhD students and postdoctoral fellows. The scope was to share my experience and story of my academic career in a period where the global financial and humanitarian crisis is affecting young scientists’ hopes of doing what they love most – science.

Given its length, I have divided the original talk into multiple posts.

To read the previous articles in this series please visit the links below:

Entrepreneurship

If academia represents intellectual freedom and independence, and industry represents job security and earning potential, then entrepreneurship is the best of both worlds.

In a biotech start-up, you are taking your own idea and framing it within the context of an applicable product. There is no more translational research than this, which epitomizes bench to bedside. Taking money from a private entity to get you started is not all that different from taking money from the federal government or not-for-profit organization (NPO); in fact, you will still need to do this as a private company. As for private investors – be it an angel investor, venture capitalist, or biotech/pharmaceutical company – they often give you significantly more money, with the added caveat that a private investor expects all of their financing to go toward product development and to gain returns within five years (on average). Federal and not-for-profit organization funds, on the other hand, are theoretically more tolerant of exploratory science with no concrete timeline, but, given the present funding climate, are practically no less concerned with clear and timely deliverables within the five-year grant cycle. Moreover, federal grants are often taxed heavily at the institutional overhead rate, and are increasingly diluted amongst multiple projects outside of the necessarily specific aims of the original grant application, which means progress on any given research project is a lot slower.

Besides constituting another major source of research funding, the process of taking a research project private is an incredible learning experience that exposes the principal investigators to career trajectories outside the narrow focus of “university professor.” Examples include intellectual property law, venture capital, management/strategy consulting, research contract organizations (not shown on Figure 5), and overlaps heavily with media and politics through company/industry analyst, regulatory consultancy and policy. As an entrepreneur you will be interacting closely with representatives in all of these industries, not to mention taking on the role of chief executive officer, chief scientific officer and chief operations officer for your own company. Most importantly, the contacts you’ll make along the way will open doors to careers most scientists do not know exist, and for which you are already ideally suited at this stage.

Your current job, be it graduate student or postdoc, while temporary, is stable enough – at least for the two- to three-year stretches afforded by most research grants – and sufficiently flexible to let you take business classes, and do the necessary legwork to see a new venture through. Vcs and angel investors love to invest in PhDs, and I am certain you have no shortage of ideas.

One major shortfall of academic training is that graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are not taught to recognize and appreciate the skillset they develop. Nevertheless, that skillset is there, and it is entirely applicable to business. Grant applications are business plans, seminars are business pitches, and the competencies developed managing personnel (such as co-op and summer students, technicians, co-workers and mentors), accommodating budgetary requirements (such as grants, laboratory/operating costs, consumables, travel and salaries), establishing and negotiating collaborations, and meeting deadlines are all directly transferable to the board room.

As important as innovation is, great ideas are nothing without a strong supportive scaffold on which to plant their roots and grow, and collaboration is something graduate programs in the sciences teach well. Recognition of this is important and if you don’t have an immediately translatable technology in development, you can and should seek out great ideas emerging from different research laboratories, and lend your time and energy to see them through. This is an exceptional platform for academically-minded researchers to recruit support for commercially developing their projects and permit entrepreneurially-minded trainees to pursue their own project ideas outside the limited focus of the academic lab. Many very successful university professors have followed this model, and spun-off incredibly profitable companies run by their graduate and postdoctoral fellows. Robert Langer at MIT is a great example of this (read his personal account of translating discoveries in an academic lab). There is no better time.

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the CEO and chief scientific officer of Platelet BioGenesis, and a faculty member in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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