In the movie Ocean's Eleven, the character Danny Ocean assembles a team of talented, technically savvy crooks to rob a Las Vegas casino. Money is part of their motivation, but Ocean is also motivated by the sheer challenge of the enterprise--and by the opportunity to make an impact--on the fortunes of the casino owner, who is dating his ex-wife.
In much the same way, Ph.D. entrepreneurs are motivated by many other things besides the potential for large financial gains. In fact in my experience, the primary motivation of most scientist-entrepreneurs is not money but the opportunity to make a bigger and more immediate impact than most scientists who work in academic labs are likely to make.
It can be hard for early-career scientists to make the off-a-cliff leap into entrepreneurship. That's partly because despite the challenges of obtaining funding, running a lab, and obtaining tenure, most scientists I have spoken to believe employment in academia to be more secure than employment at a start-up. Many people in academia also believe the best science takes place at universities. Industrial science is viewed as lower in quality and compromised by the pursuit of profits.
The biggest barrier to scientific entrepreneurship, however, is probably a simple lack of knowledge: Scientists and engineers usually aren't taught how to take scientific advances from the lab to the marketplace. They don't understand the critical role scientist-entrepreneurs play in that process.
The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation hopes to attack those barriers head-on with a new postdoctoral fellowship program designed to advance innovation and entrepreneurship among scientists. Announced in January, the fellowship will engage 12 postdoctoral researchers annually in a yearlong program of training and mentorship. The goal of the program is partly to teach the fellows the intricacies of commercializing a scientific breakthrough and partly to spark their entrepreneurial fire. Details of the program can be found at http://sites.kauffman.org/postdocs/index.cfm.
Compromised in a different way
As I previously mentioned, many scientists view for-profit science as tainted. But Lesa Mitchell, vice president of advancing innovation at the Kauffman Foundation, sees a different kind of taint in precisely that narrow viewpoint. "The critical role that scientists play in our economy is compromised because faculty members, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers do not have a base-level understanding of the commercialization process," Mitchell explains. By funding and mentoring a small group of early-career scientists and giving them the opportunity to intern at early-stage technology companies, the Kauffman Foundation hopes to illuminate the entrepreneurial path not just for the fellows themselves but for the science community as a whole. It's a training program and a marketing effort all in one.
"We are mostly seeking individuals who have already demonstrated an interest in moving beyond the bench but who may not have seen any opportunities to do so," explains Sandy Miller, a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation and director of the postdoctoral program. "Having a commercializable project in hand is not a prerequisite for the program. We will look for fellows who have the potential to be a scientific or clinical founder" of a company.
Over the years, the Kauffman Foundation, the world's largest foundation dedicated to the promotion of entrepreneurship, has sponsored research and programs to promote entrepreneurship as a key engine of economic prosperity in the United States and abroad. Yet their programs have rarely penetrated the ivy-coated walls (and refractory culture) of the nation's leading research universities. David Charron, associate director of the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, sees the program as a big boost to entrepreneurship activities at his campus and others: "To have funds to work on commercialization over the course of a year with a mentor at your institution is the right model. I hope that many of our entrepreneurially minded Ph.D.s and postdocs take advantage of this opportunity."
The voices of scientist-entrepreneurs
In most academic departments, basic scientists deliver weekly seminars and journal-club lectures that focus on research. Entrepreneurship just isn't an important part of the academic value system. (In contrast, scientist-entrepreneurs are commonly invited to lecture at business schools.) Graduate students and postdocs rarely get to exercise and develop an entrepreneurial mindset (which can also be applied just as well to an academic research career, as this column frequently points out).
In building its Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, the Kauffman Foundation assembled a collection of outstanding science-entrepreneurs to act as program advisers. The foundation has placed a series of videos online about these professionals and their experiences going from the bench to the boardroom.
One adviser is Eric Elenko, who has a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from UC San Diego. Elenko, senior principal at biotech venture-capital group Puretech Ventures, notes that scientists who leave the bench for a start-up company aren't abandoning science. "When you are involved in starting and running a company, you may no longer be in the lab, but you may still be involved in science. ... I read more papers [today] than I did in grad school." Elenko notes that "as an entrepreneur, one is forced to wear multiple hats and has to contend with issues with which one has never dealt with previously. Therefore, being able to learn very quickly and being a good problem solver is critical."
Daniel Kraft, M.D. cofounder and chief medical officer of StemCor Systems in Menlo Park, California, is another adviser to the program. Kraft did his training at Stanford University and a residency at Harvard University. During his training, he developed the bone marrow stem cell technology upon which StemCor was based. Kraft notes that "an entrepreneurial path does not have to equate to spending a huge focus on founding and the business side of running a company." Taking the entrepreneurial route does, however, require knowing the pathways and methods for "transforming one's bench-top science and other discoveries" into a "commercially viable and valuable product, platform, or new industry." Kraft says the desired attributes of an entrepreneur (and a Kauffman Fellow) are a desire to make an impact, persistence and optimism, resourcefulness, a team orientation, and curiosity beyond your own narrow specialization.
Through my writing and workshops, I have met hundreds of entrepreneurially inclined postdocs--all strong candidates for a Kauffman award. This fellowship will go beyond fostering entrepreneurship in the dozen fellows selected each year. The program will be a beacon within the academy for entrepreneurship as a career path. I am delighted that this new program exists, and I encourage you to investigate the program and spread the word to other young scientists.
Don't be lost in translation
Technology entrepreneurship is, in many ways, just one facet of what's often called "translational research" in the biomedical world. Translational research aims to bring new insights and technologies out of the lab to benefit the public--as therapies for diseases and solutions to public-health problems--as quickly and efficiently as possible. In most situations, commercialization is a key link in that process.
As a young scientist, you are in a unique position to make this happen. Audacity, risk-taking, and determination are (along with good ideas and smart execution) keys to success in entrepreneurship. But they are also keys to success in most other realms. (There are some exceptions; if your objective is to excel in midlevel bureaucracy, for example, these traits may not help you.) Maybe you will go out and start your own company--with or without a Kauffman fellowship. But even if you don't end up becoming a Kauffman Postdoctoral Fellow, take the lesson the program's existence is sending. Consider all the ways your science has the potential to impact the world at large, and work--with audacity and determination--to make that impact real.
Photo (top): Chris Gladis
Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.