James Pond (pictured left) never thought that his degree in particle physics would lead him to where he is today: founder of a software firm, where he serves as Chief Technology Officer. His hope back in graduate school was to find a job in the corporate world and learn how to survive. He soon realized that, rather than helping him, his academic background led others, including potential employers, to pigeonhole him. "You have to realize that your software skills, like coding and design, will be considered inferior compared to those of a pure computer scientist," warns Pond. "In fact, for a lot of jobs the science background may actually be seen as a distraction by the companies."
A background in particle physics will definitely set you apart; the trick, Pond believes, is to find an employer who realizes that such a background can be a real asset.
The step from grad school to industry can be daunting; Pond thinks it may take some fresh graduates a couple of extra transitional steps within academia before venturing outside successfully. If your goal is to work in software or some other area of industry (yet potential employers aren't knocking down the doors), then it might be a good idea to find a pre- or postdoc position with practical relevance to the industry you want to work in.
Fundamental physics research studying complicated physical processes naturally led Pond to gravitate toward using computers and designing his own software. Graduating with a Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia, Pond went on to study low-temperature magnetism in crystals and found that a lot of his work relied heavily on computer simulation and modeling. "Some of my experimental results couldn't be explained, and the only way to fit those results was to do computer models of the processes that were happening and try to fit the data to certain parameters," explains Pond.
Pond found that he actually enjoyed the process of manipulating his data in the virtual world: "There's real satisfaction in being able to model and predict things that compare extremely well to experimental results, which in the end help you to understand and interpret the experimental results better."
Riding the Wave
Pond counts himself lucky. After graduating in 2000, a small start-up company--Vancouver-based Galian Photonics--took a chance on him and took him under its wing, despite his lack of certain software skills. "In my case," Pond says, "Galian found my science background and the diversity it brings a match rather than a hindrance."
It turned out to be a good bet for Galian and for the software industry. Pond's scientific training has helped him understand technical problems and devise innovative ways of applying software-based solutions to complex problems. "I do very advanced programming that targets very advanced research and development that is extremely technically challenging, and clearly having a degree and background in physics makes me the right person to be doing this."
Galian Photonics and its 20 employees were in the business of commercializing a new technology--photonic crystals--for the telecommunications industry. Galian's research and development focused on replacing electrical signals in wires and semiconductors with light in photonic crystals and optical fibers, allowing the signal to be processed more efficiently.
Riding the telecommunications industry boom, Pond was hired to do computer modeling, but within 2 years he moved up the ranks to senor scientist and became heavily involved in the design of Galian's software. "I ended up being the technical and science lead on projects, where I had responsibility for everything from software design to modeling new experimental design work," says Pond.
Pond was happy with his job at Galian, crediting his contentment primarily to the great team spirit that he believes is typical of small companies. Unfortunately, with the downturn in the telecommunications sector, Galian folded in 2002. "The actual market size for our product had diminished to the extent that it didn't make much sense to continue, so the company decided to close its doors," he says.
Pond moved quickly onward and upward. The entrepreneurial spirit in him took hold, and he decided to go into business for himself. Together with some of his former core teammates, he launched his own company, Lumerical Solutions, in the summer of 2003.
Building on the most successful business aspects of Galian, Pond pulled together seven key members of the Galian team. "Basically the whole team who were responsible for modeling at Galian decided to start to do their own thing, to do software modeling for electrical [and] magnetic problems," says Pond.
A year into the business, Lumerical Solutions continues to provide electromagnetic computation and simulation tools for optical and photonic technologies to academic and industrial clients in sectors from telecom to biotech. Their main clients are in both the United States and Canada, but business is beginning to trickle in from overseas.
Bench to Boardroom
Through his experience at Galian, especially the company's early success, Pond knew that government assistance was essential. One such federal program that Pond has utilized is the Industrial Research Assistance Program ( IRAP), run by the National Research Council of Canada. IRAP provides seed grants to kick-start advanced corporate research and development programs. The organization can also help new companies establish business networks.
"They help pay for R&D salaries, and they know various experts across the country who are doing similar things and can put you in touch with these people," says Pond. "IRAP is definitely something to look into for anyone interested in looking to start up a company [in Canada]."
The transition from bench to boardroom can have exciting rewards and hidden challenges. But how can you tell if stepping out of the academic bubble and into the world of industry is right for you? According to Pond, it really comes down to the individual's personality. "I realized that I was the kind of person who likes [to have] a very fixed goal, or [to] aim a team to something that can be achieved or accomplished in time spans of a year to 2 years' range, and I realized that the very open-ended research, like some big open research projects that go on at universities, wasn't something that interested me."
What advice does Pond have for those wanting to take the bigger leap of starting their own company? Be patient; take the time to work for a while at a company where you can learn how the business works. "My years at Galian were a crash course in how to open a company without ... being the one responsible for actually starting the company."
Pond says that if you have a business idea that you think will work, seek out someone who already has experience, maybe even a friendly angel investor who may want to get onboard. Either way, Pond stresses that the most important thing is to talk to people to see if an idea will fly. "If you go around talking with people and nobody gets excited about your idea, then you should really think about whether it's a really exciting idea," Pond says half-jokingly. "Opening your own company is basically perseverance and determination, and you need a whole lot to make it a success."
Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.