Over the past year, I made the decision to begin my own business as a consultant in sport science support and environmental ergonomics. On top of a booming research lab and a full teaching load, not to mention a growing young family, why would I take on this new venture? Simply put, the excitement of starting a new venture is too much fun to pass up and an excellent opportunity for personal growth. I love being in academia and am nowhere near giving it up. However, the entrepreneurial spirit that I believe lies within all academics made starting a business a relatively natural extension of my growth as a researcher. That, plus the desire to directly apply research knowledge, pushed me toward setting up an independent consultancy.
In the first of this on-going series of articles for Next Wave, I will examine the reasons for and against setting up shop as a part-time consultant in your field of research. In subsequent articles, I will focus on some of the challenges and opportunities specific to the academic consultant.
One of the fundamental realities of university life is that--lip service from the administration notwithstanding--the primary criteria for career advancement are grants from traditional funding sources and published "basic" research. In contrast, industrial collaborations and applied research are given little if any consideration or appreciation, despite the fact that there are probably at least as many funding opportunities in industrial and applied research as there are through traditional avenues. I have always been a big believer in bridging the gap between basic and applied research and I don't think that the two are not mutually incompatible. Through our academic training and personal research, we have each developed a strong proficiency in something. It therefore becomes an exciting intellectual journey to translate our basic theoretical knowledge into the real world of applied situations. In addition, applied research also requires a level of speed and efficiency that is often difficult to achieve working within a traditional university framework.
Besides the excitement of creating and nurturing a new venture, what are some concrete advantages to setting up your own business consultancy as an academic?
Of course, the consultancy life is not for everybody. One of the biggest hesitations to starting a new business venture is the fear that we lack the business skills we'll need to make it in an apparently cutthroat corporate world. Just as teaching is not a skill that is formally taught during graduate training (see my previous series on Transition to Academia ), the same can be said of business skills and entrepreneurship. However, I feel that one of the hallmarks of a good researcher is a strong entrepreneurial tendency, and that the similarities between a strong research program and a business model are numerous. Within the research context, we essentially run our own little businesses. Our stock currencies in academia--grants and publications--have strong analogies to a business seeking funding investment while producing quality outcomes. And like any business, we have the constant challenge of recruiting and funding top-notch employees (i.e., students, technicians, and postdocs) while providing them with opportunities to further develop their capabilities. Therefore, it is actually a relatively simple leap from running your own lab to running your own business.
However, some fundamental difficulties exist in creating a consultancy based on your research specialty that may be impossible to overcome. These include:
In the end, academia may serve as a perfect springboard from which to develop a complementary consulting business. No matter how apparently specialized or basic your field of research, there is almost certainly a market for the direct application of that knowledge and somebody willing to pay for it. The fun part is to find the connections.