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THE BLACK HOLE

Scientist entrepreneurs: go ahead, jump!

The earnings of grad students and postdocs is so low that they have little to lose by engaging in business start-ups.

By JONATHAN THON | JAN 19 2015

“Every individual that we can inspire, that we can guide, that we can help start a new company, is vital to the future of our economic welfare.” – Ewing Kauffman

One interesting development that has started to take root is the idea of investing in business accelerators. Public-private partnerships such as MARs in Toronto that receive federal funding to support local entrepreneurs through seminar series, advisory services, networking services, office and research facilities are exceptional resources for helping scientist entrepreneurs learn what they don’t know about business creation, planning, and execution. Others I have worked with include the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine also in Toronto, which works closely with MARs to support scientific innovation in that city, the Venture Development Center at the University of Massachusetts, and the Kauffman Foundation for Enterprise in the United States.

Kauffman Labs is among the first and best resources for new entrepreneurs, and their mission is to accelerate the number and success of new business ventures by training entrepreneurs to create dynamic, scalable businesses in a lab setting while studying the “science of start-ups.” Harvard Business School’s “Commercializing Science” class does the same, and goes one step further by teaching students across multiple disciplines how to build a business around new technologies being developed in academic labs. Throughout the class, students are provided the opportunity to move existing research from academic labs to the marketplace – in turn creating for themselves a future in the new company. There are certainly more examples out there than these, and as the idea of entrepreneurship as a primary driver of economic growth continues to take hold, we should expect many more.

While federal governments should continue to invest in start-ups for reasons highlighted in my previous posts (here and here), previous discussions around this issue have missed the point entirely. The linchpin to successful start-up creation is the entrepreneur. While I am speaking wholly from experience here, this video by the Kauffman Labs for Enterprise Creation makes the point most succinctly.

Start-ups are difficult, and not for the obvious reasons. The trouble with start-ups is that they require a LOT of work, have NO guarantee of success, and can take an indefinite amount of time (and certainly longer than expected) to establish. You’d have to be crazy to want to start one, and need super-human determination to see it through given the overwhelming near-certainty of failure. Until you have successfully completed your first major funding round you are most likely not going to see any financial compensation for your blood sweat and tears, and all evidence shows that you will have to surmount at least one failed venture before you see your first success – and this is why graduate students and postdocs are perfect for it.

For starters, you have nothing to lose. Graduate school salaries pay next to nothing and post-doc salaries are only marginally better. Just about any other job for which the graduate student or postdoc is qualified would pay them more, which means that even “failure” by its conventional definition in academia will land you in a better financial situation (ironic, that). Job security in academia is almost nonexistent anyway, as recent funding rates in the United States hover at roughly 10%. Employment prospects following training is still another major qualifier of stability, and it should be abundantly clear by now that academic faculty appointments, for which the vast majority of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are training, are virtually non-existent.

With nothing to lose, early career scientists have everything to gain by engaging in new business start-ups. So how do we help new scientist-entrepreneurs succeed?

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is an assistant professor in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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