Editor's note: This is one of the first-hand stories of Netherlands' scientists who have successfully commercialised their research results with the help of one of the Netherlands' support programmes for young entrepreneurs.
Father and son running a company together; it might be routine in agriculture or law offices, but have you ever seen an example in science?
For 7 years now, my father and I have been running Ergodynamics Applications ( EA), a company that offers a remedy against Lower Back Pain (LBP) resulting from prolonged sitting. My dad--an experienced orthopaedist--wanted to help the many LBP patients he saw. My background in biomechanics prepared me well to find a solution to LBP. With the support of New Venture--a business plan competition for would-be entrepreneurs in the Netherlands--and a lot of persistence, we eventually turned our idea into a product.
Even though I chose the scientific track at first, I've always had a feeling for business. In my late teens I designed several furniture systems, had them produced at a friend's factory during summer holidays, then sold them myself. Real business started during the last two years of my studies of mechanical engineering at Delft Technical University. In my spare time, I helped my dad with a technical solution for LBP. Together we developed a technology we called "Rotary Continuous Passive Motion" or RCPM, and--after patenting the technology--founded our company in 1997. At present, I lead EA but my father--now a member of the advisory board--has always played an important role behind the scenes.
I graduated from university the same year we launched the company. But at that time, even though I wanted to continue with EA, I didn't have a clue about how to make money out of it, and my father and I believed that the RCPM technique needed further development. So instead of rushing into entrepreneurship, I decided to try and find out why it works. A former professor, who was enthusiastic about my plans, offered me a junior researcher position, which I accepted.
Meanwhile, I kept my eyes open for additional expertise and support, which I finally found at the Biomedical Physics and Technology department of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. With the help of professor Snijders of that group, I started a Ph.D. that combined technical expertise--the Delft programme's specialty--with the medical knowledge of the department at Rotterdam.
Having an academic position had several benefits. First, it gave me full access to facilities, literature, and expertise I otherwise wouldn't have been aware of. Second, both universities had programs designed to stimulate entrepreneurship with tax-free loans and housing, which allowed me to develop the company under academic wings.
The combination of research and business development made life challenging. I worked long hours, running back and forth between exciting human-subject experiments and negotiations with interested industry partners. Even though it got a bit hectic at times, the thought that I was working on a useful technology kept me going.
In my first year at university, I heard about a business-plan competition for academics called New Venture. I saw in this competition a risk-free opportunity to develop a proper business plan for EA.
The New Venture competition comprises three rounds. During the first two rounds, which are intended to help entrepreneurs estimate the value and test the feasibility of their idea, my father and I mainly worked on our own. Still, the competition deadlines were vital; without them, there wouldn't have been any pressure to produce. The third and final round, in which we wrote our business plan, was even more useful, as it brought us in touch with financial and marketing experts.
Once again, we were mostly on our own: these experts didn't give us definite answers to all of our questions. Instead, they helped us find answers ourselves. This is a strength of New Venture: it provides structure and guidance, yet you do everything yourself. Formulating clear goals and identifying unique selling points are two things we couldn't have done without New Venture. Winning the competition has been the crown to our work.
We were far from finished once the competition was over. The publicity that comes with winning the competition provided a good environment for us to get our business going. Two venture capitalists - both affiliated with the ABN AMRO--approached us, offering investments to boost our business. It took 8 months of negotiating, evaluating, and planning to close the two-in-one deal. This was a process that I was completely unfamiliar with, and one that New Venture couldn't prepare me for. It was hard to figure out how to put a value to the company and how many shares we could sell.
Meanwhile, I had a Ph.D. to finish. I graduated just one week before we closed the deal with the venture capital firms. While the business seemed to be going better than ever, I began to realise that we would eventually run into problems. Our strategy to license our technology to home, office, and truck-seat manufacturers would be unlikely to lead to a so-called "proof of concept," a product that proved that our technology actually worked. Especially with the economic recession of that time, it was hard to convince industry to pay for licenses without this proof of concept. Yet, the team and our advisors remained enthusiastic.
In order to solve these problems, instead of focusing our marketing efforts on seat manufacturers we started to examine the needs of the end users of our product: people with back problems. We asked ourselves questions like, what would make people to buy a product for their backaches? How much money they would spend? How would they like to have it produced? Answering these questions allowed us to get beyond the manufacturers and adapt our idea to the consumer's needs and budget. Against the advice of many of our shareholders, I started to work on a consumer-focused product. Together with some industrial design students, I developed the Torzio, a mobile rotating seat.
In the final stage of product development, all former shareholders sold their interest in the company because they had lost faith in the new strategy. We were saved by a Chinese manufacturer who offered us a deal that I would recommend to any entrepreneur: financial support in exchange for exclusive production rights. The Chinese company became not just investors but also advisors on technical issues.
Take this home
In developing our new company, I've learned that a great idea is not enough. You have to have good management skills--or obtain them if you don't have them--and you must surround yourself with a team of people with complementary skills and think carefully about timing.
I've also learned that entrepreneurship is not about the pursuit of fast money; it's about achieving a long-sought personal goal. Even though you won't find me in the lab any more, the successful introduction of my own product makes me feel just as excited as a scientist after a great discovery.