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Scientists...Do They Make Good Entrepreneurs?

John Carrigan, Chief Scientist at RebelBio discusses his views on the entrepreneurial process and how the role of the scientists and how they have moved from the lab to the boardroom!

From my personal experience, its a question that gets people within the biotech sector quite exercised and has been the motivation for Tedtalks and several Quora debates.  When the SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) program was established in 1982, to offer funding to US scientists in the form of commercialisation grants. It was seen as a wise attempt by the US Congress to glean some reward after years of investment in basic research.

To quote Steve Blank (serial entrepreneur and teacher), who was later asked to consult on the program ‘Scientists turned out to be horrible at commercialization’. But no one was measuring it, and that’s why the program kept running. It seems that being a scientist offered no natural advantage in the start-up world – much the opposite of what was expected, given the generally independent and self-driven nature of the scientific community.

Over the course of my career, I have heard many times the view that being a scientist is incompatible with being a successful entrepreneur. And yet, being a scientist would naturally seem to offer some obvious advantages in the business world: creative and critical thinking, initiative, drive and, above all, the resilience to keep trying in the face of failure.

So, what is the problem? Firstly, some bad press has occasionally come from businesses and industries that work with scientists in collaborative relationships. Scientists who work in academia, no matter how applied their science and no matter how many industrial collaborations they are involved in, tend to have to have a  multiple criteria for success. This is usually measured by further grants, ‘high impact’ papers in leading journals and the number of PhD students they mentor.

However, while funds provided by programmes such as Horizon 2020 and FP7 have been a valuable lifeline for many small organisations, there are some drawbacks. Companies can sometimes find themselves with deliverables that are either constrained or do not support the company’s overall business plan directly. Hence, much of the bad press. In these scenarios, the solution is an adjustment of expectations to ensure a mutually beneficial outcome.

There is little doubt, however, that in the beginning of the entrepreneurial journey, scientists have to make a number of adjustments (as does everybody). This can be difficult, as there is a general behaviour pattern associated with being a scientist and the ‘covenant’ that governs scientific research is different to that which is required to accelerate a start up.

In fact, the accepted tenets of this traditional scientific covenant could be perceived by many outside the scientific community as a disincentive to starting a company. For example, when one submits a well-received paper to a journal, the best peer review usually comes back as two sentences of praise and two pages of criticism before a general recommendation to publish.

While we may read of ‘moonshot thinking’ in the daily papers and see celebrity scientists painting amazing visions of the future on TV, the day-to-day scientific existence can be quite dry and the community can be extremely conservative. Lone wolves,  who don’t adhere to the process tend to get dismissed pretty quickly.

Additionally, in adapting to the world outside the laboratory, scientists have been criticised for failing to distinguish between the science, the product, the technology and the business. They are sometimes guilty of not focusing on the bottom line, while spending too much thought on the science. This is why business accelerators, and mentorship by people who have walked the entrepreneurial walk, are critical to getting great ideas off the ground.

Both RebelBio and Indiebio have scientists working in house. Companies that access our respective programs get thoroughly vetted – not only their business plans, but also the validity of their science. This is something that certain other programs do not do effectively. This allows us to build a company’s business in synchronisation with its science. As recent high profile collapse of Theranos shows,  one cant simply build a great business plan oblivious to the scientific development.

RebelBio and IndieBio provide the proper maker space and access to great scientific mentorship as needed, as well as allowing for the smooth transition of information between scientists and business people alike.  Crucially, and a fact that has not been realised among other so called business accelerators, it allows the entrepreneurial spirit in the to be outed and cultivated in an environment  where they can be reassured that science is not being ignored.  You cant overestimate just how important that is.

Scientists can and do make great entrepreneurs.  Just don’t expect them to completely ignore their core discipline.

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