Ask Dr. Clemmons is a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article and my most recent article to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!
Dear Dr. Clemmons:The topic of alternative careers in science is one that comes up a lot nowadays, even in academia, so I was comfortable enough to tell my Ph.D. adviser that I would like to start a company based on my Ph.D. thesis project. To my surprise, he was very supportive of the idea but told me in no uncertain terms that he was not interested in pursuing such an endeavor. Therefore, I am free to take my research with me in pursuit of this goal, but at best, all he was ever going to be was a silent partner in the enterprise.
I am writing you now out of desperation because I am supposed to finish my degree sometime next year, but I realize that I haven't a clue as to how to get started building my business, especially in the midst of finishing my thesis. I realize I need to hit the ground running as soon as possible once my Ph.D. is done, and I have to prioritize. Dr. Clemmons, can you help me outline the things I should consider and point me in the right direction for getting started down this path of entrepreneurship? It has been my passion for a long time, but now that the opportunity has arisen, I find myself unprepared.
Want to Start a Company, But I Don't Know How!
Dear Want to Start a Company:
This is a perfect case of "be careful what you ask for because you just might get it." However, it is a good situation to find yourself in! I wish more students had the kind of entrepreneurial aspirations you have, because ownership is a key component of prosperity in the long run.
Tapping the Brainpower of Others
Ownership of your ideas is more important than ever for scientists and engineers, because patents and other forms of intellectual property may equate to a substantial source of revenue. The good news is that scientific entrepreneurship is currently all the rage! Although it may be time-consuming, getting large numbers of people interested in your idea is the key. Be patient and consider enlisting the help of other, more business-savvy individuals to assist you with the commercial end of things until you can come up to speed.
If your university has a business school, find like-minded individuals to work with, or tap into the professorial brainpower that may be available to you at low to no cost. If there is no business school at your university, determine which community resources are available to assist biotech or high-tech business start-ups. Also, seek the advice of successful business people with science backgrounds. They may or may not be in your geographical area, but you should reach out to them anyway.
To get started, closely examine your area of research and your particular project to determine how to patent the technology. Without at least a filed patent application, you can forget raising any money for the endeavor; do a patent search at the United States Patent and Trademark Office Web site and determine whether your idea differs from others in the database. Patent approval depends on originality. Also, examine trademark logos of other patents in the field, and use your creativity to develop your own brand. Your university's intellectual property or technology-transfer office may be able to help as well.
Unfortunately, if you have already published data relevant to your start-up idea without filing a patent, it may be too late to file. Instead, think of alternatives to build your business. This may mean coming up with a new scientific idea. Remember, patented technology is the most important thing a biotech or high-tech business can own.
During the patent application process, write a business plan, making sure you are honest with yourself in assessing the true market potential of your idea. In other words, "What is different about your idea, and what does any product that may result from your research offer the market?" This exercise will increase the chances your project will be funded by academe, government, or industry. You may want to ask an MBA student for assistance or get some other professional help. Critical milestones exist in the scientific entrepreneurial process that will dictate your ultimate success or failure. Developing and following a marketing plan makes the process of starting your business easier.
Finding the Money
The next step will be to find backers for your commercial enterprise, unless you happen to be independently wealthy. This may also be done in conjunction with the first two steps (marketing and filing a patent) if you have time. If not, don't worry about it. No one is going to want to throw money at a half-baked idea; investing the time in careful planning is more important.
Potential funding sources include grants, angel investors (private individuals or investment clubs that invest smaller sums of money, usually less than $2 million), and university-related coffers, for starters. A venture capital firm may want to get involved at a later stage after your idea has shown some promise, but be wary of giving away too much of your corporation if you are desperate for a deal.
Intellectual Freedom and Financial Independence
Your situation is an example of what I consider one of the best kept secrets in higher education: Our system's ability to support those who search for innovative ways to further our nation's technological advances through entrepreneurship. Gone are the days of simply training scientists and engineers just to work for someone else. I commend you for seeking intellectual freedom and financial independence and realizing that an advanced degree alone does not necessarily help you reach these goals. It also takes hard work, persistence, a "get-it-done" attitude, and the consultation of others. I have confidence that you will make your dream happen.
I am glad that you have indicated your willingness to take a risk in your career, because building a business is just that: risky. You may succeed, you may fail, but either way you have to keep going. Success requires constant shepherding of your good ideas and status; a failure will require you to get up, dust yourself off, and try again. Minorities and women may especially find success in these types of endeavors a daunting task due to misperceptions about their abilities; however, we are just as capable. In time, many more Fortune 500 companies will be led by minorities, and more people from these groups will consider the risks of striking out on their own to be just as attractive as working for someone else.
Please tune in to my column next month for a more in-depth analysis of your options and a roster of resources that you may use when it comes to starting a technology-based business that builds on your Ph.D. thesis. They include starting a private or venture capital-backed company, or becoming a consultant. I will discuss the pros and cons of each. Please keep me apprised of your progress. Good luck!