Should I pursue an academic career, or should I get a job in industry and have an impact on the "real" world? It is a common question that many of us in the world of science have faced at some point.
But, increasingly, scientists do not need to sacrifice academic freedom for the opportunity to bring their discoveries to market. These days, there is a third career path for those with creativity, courage, and capability: academic entrepreneurship. Today, many successful academic entrepreneurs show us that it is possible to be part of the publication race while commercializing scientific findings.
A foot in two worlds
There are several barriers to academic entrepreneurship. First, academic entrepreneurs must possess a rare blend of skills. They must have the attributes of traditional scientists, including inner drive, rigor, and technical skills. They must also possess the attributes of traditional entrepreneurs, such as the ability to recognize business opportunities and create value for the customer, and the willingness to take risks. Academic entrepreneurs must be able to aim high while delivering on their promises and discerning which research endeavors are most likely to contribute to the bottom line.
Even for academics with the right set of skills, university culture can be a strong deterrent. Traditional science education doesn’t embrace entrepreneurship, so many young scientists feel unqualified. Principal investigators often take the view that Ph.D. students and postdocs should focus entirely on research. Another disincentive is that, in too many departments, patents and startup companies may count for little during hiring and promotion.
Even in a supportive environment, the challenges of doing both at once—becoming a world-class researcher and commercializing a technology—are so formidable that many early-career scientists come to see them as insurmountable.
These are real limitations, but let’s consider some inspiring facts. The number of patents, licenses, and spin-off companies created by academics is increasing. According to a study published in 2009 by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management, alumni from MIT had created 25,800 active companies with worldwide annual sales of $2 trillion. These days, many universities support budding academic entrepreneurs through ad-hoc courses and access to technology transfer offices, business incubators, and innovation parks.
Early-career scientists can find role models among the many prolific academics who have become successful entrepreneurs, including biochemist Herbert Boyer, who co-founded Genentech, and chemist George Whitesides, who co-founded Genzyme and many other companies from his academic bases at MIT and Harvard University. Every year, the MIT Technology Review "35 Innovators Under 35" (TR35) program recognizes talented scientists who pursue groundbreaking business ideas, at an early stage in their career. Among past awardees is Shwetak Patel of the University of Washington in Seattle, who won an award for designing simple sensors for monitoring electricity consumption in domestic environments. Another winner is Luis von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who won a TR35 award for using "captchas" to help digitize books.
As a former TR35 awardee myself and a member of the jury for the last 3 years, I have come to believe that to make the leap into entrepreneurship one needs three prerequisites: solid research, a good idea about how to turn findings into a business opportunity, and a supportive environment.
I found myself in such a situation between 2001 and 2004, as an MIT postdoc supported by a Fulbright fellowship. There, I designed nanotechnology strategies to introduce wider porosity in crystalline materials such as zeolites. I knew that making zeolites more porous had long been a Holy Grail in the catalyst industry, so I soon started to work to commercialize my findings.
In the spring of 2004, as my postdoc was coming to an end, I entered the MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition, one of the largest business plan competitions in the world. I didn’t win, but the courses I took allowed me to become familiar with intellectual property, build a business plan, and hone my communication and fundraising skills. These days, courses like these (and many others) can be found online for free (see box).
Upon founding Rive Technology in 2005, we opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts, very close to MIT. Three years later, after securing $14 million in capital, our R&D activities were moved to a large facility in Princeton, New Jersey. After securing $67 million from leading venture capital firms and big companies, Rive Technology started to commercialize nanostructured zeolite catalysts for the production of diesel and gasoline.
A win-win situation
Not only did I start this company while working toward a permanent faculty position; I did it while living on another continent. In 2004, upon finishing my postdoc, I returned to my native Spain and took a Ramon y Cajal Fellowship (the Spanish equivalent of a tenure-track position) at the University of Alicante. I struck a technology transfer agreement with my university, and won tenure there in 2009.
Getting my business off the ground while winning tenure was not easy, but I managed thanks to great teams in both places. During the early stages of the company, I spent most of my time in the United States. I still spend an average of 3 months a year there.
One of the most frequent mistakes of budding entrepreneurs, I believe, is trying to wear too many hats at the same time. Our first CEO joined the company just a few months after it was founded, allowing me to focus on the roles of chief scientist and member of the board of directors. Having company employees and collaborators spread out in the United States has been a major challenge, but communications technology has really helped us connect and maintain the flow of information. We all share a clear vision, and a Technical Advisory Committee, of which I am a member, prioritizes efforts and helps coordinate activities in different locations.
I never found academic and entrepreneurial activities incompatible; in fact, I believe they go hand-in-hand. The crossroads of academia and industry provides a valuable perspective and complementary skills. Spinning off your research forces you to think more broadly and creatively, and to solve technical issues that would not necessarily emerge within a smaller-scale lab environment. It also helps you to hone your presentation and negotiating skills, and your ability to manage multiple teams and limited time and resources. Such hands-on experience can open new doors to academics, helping them secure industry funding, for example, and also collaborators.
Staying in academia, in turn, has been very beneficial to my career as an entrepreneur. It has allowed me to keep abreast of the most forward-looking results in my field, think more broadly and critically about how to transfer my technology, develop new science that could lead to new business opportunities, and identify and recruit new talent.
Academic entrepreneurs can have a real impact on society. Science and technology will be critical in our efforts to tackle the most urgent societal challenges, be it climate change, food security, or public health. But we need more people with the courage and technical knowledge to turn discoveries into an everyday reality.
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Top Image: Illustration of a hydrocarbon diffusing through the zeolites developed by Rive Technology CREDIT: Rive Technology/Javier Garcia-Martinez