Can a scientist be a good entrepreneur?
David Giltner, founder of TurningScience, discusses whether these two seemingly different career paths can successfully overlap
Turning a new technology into a product is one of the most exciting things that a scientist can do while working in the private sector. Starting one’s own company in order to commercialise new technology is even more exciting.
If it seems like we hear more about entrepreneurship these days than ever, there is a good reason. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor research project has been tracking entrepreneurial activity around the globe since 1998. In 2020 it reported a significant increase in entrepreneurial activity over the last 10 years in all of the 16 economies tracked, including the United States and major countries in Europe and Asia.
This may all sound great for ‘entrepreneurial types,’ but can a scientist expect to take part in this exciting trend? The fact that scientists discover new principles and invent new technologies that find their way into startups is well known. But is a scientist the right person to commercialise a new discovery themselves? Can a scientist successfully start and build their own company? Many people believe the roles of ‘scientist’ and ‘entrepreneur’ to be very different, and that a scientist might not make a good entrepreneur. My experience says that this is not the case.
Perception vs reality
I suspect the idea that a scientist would not make a very good entrepreneur comes largely from the common perception of a successful entrepreneur: an adrenaline junkie with nerves of steel who is willing to take a big risk to gamble on a ‘one-in-a-million’ idea. We’ve all heard stories of the founders of well-known tech companies who had amazing insight or took a risk on an idea few believed would actually work. These outlier examples can leave many scientists thinking that perhaps they don’t have what it takes to start their own company and turn their idea into reality. Can these two seemingly different career paths ever overlap?
In 2010 Malcom Gladwell wrote a great article The Sure Thing: How Entrepreneurs Really Succeed. In it he described how the illusion many of us have about what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur is largely just that – an illusion. Successful entrepreneurs are actually planners who patiently look for the right opportunity. They take a calculated risk based on detailed analysis they have done to make sure they have a good chance for success. Malcom’s description of successful entrepreneurs sounds a lot more like the scientists that I know.
My own experience says that scientists can in fact be successful entrepreneurs. Over the last 12 years I’ve interviewed many scientists working in industry, and many of them have been successful entrepreneurs. These scientists-turned-entrepreneurs certainly do not match the heroic risk-taker with a one-in-a-million idea image. Instead, they are careful, taking the time to analyse the ‘big leap’ they are considering and make sure the risks are manageable. They are patient enough to wait for the right opportunity that they believe will work for them. Contrary to what some people may think, the strengths of a scientist actually make them well-suited for starting their own company.
Other scientist strengths
In addition to the attributes described in Gladwell’s article, my research has shown me there are other strengths of a scientist that make them well-suited to become an entrepreneur. Here are a few:
Scientists are great problem solvers, and that helps them if they decide to enter the startup world. If you start your own company, you will be doing something that nobody has done before, and this is bound to present you with many new problems. Sure, many people have started companies, but none of them have started the same company you are starting, in the location where you are starting yours, to solve the specific problem you are addressing in the manner that you plan to address it. You will need to solve some new problems on your own.
Peter Fiske, PhD geological and environmental sciences, founder of Rapt industries, said: ‘I feel that becoming an entrepreneur was very synergistic with my research experience. One of the greatest things about a science PhD education is you are constantly learning to solve problems you haven’t even encountered before. That’s incredibly resilient training and very useful for an entrepreneur.’
Starting a company involves entering into a whole new environment with many things to learn. Scientists know how to learn things on their own. Every scientist who receives a PhD degree is presented with a project they likely know very little about when they begin their post-graduate studies. To be awarded their degree, they were required to complete the project independently, typically learning what they need to know largely on their own. Knowing how to quickly find and learn what you need is a very useful skill when starting a company.
Marinna Madrid, PhD physics, co-founder of Cellino Biotech, said when I interviewed her in May last year: ‘As a scientist who becomes an entrepreneur, there is so much you need to learn about. Being independent, self-motivated, and able to learn things on your own is really helpful.’
Starting a technical company typically requires achieving critical early-stage milestones, such as successful prototype development and testing with very little money. To most scientists, this is nothing new. Research grant funding is hard to secure, and scientists often need to learn to be very resourceful with their money to accomplish their research goals. Having graduate students who work for very little money facilitates this pursuit, but that points out a different aspect of resourcefulness that most scientists learn.
Spending years as a poor graduate student teaches most scientists to be efficient and resourceful in their private lives as well. This is great training for an entrepreneur, as in the early stages of a company, a founding team must get everything they can out of their initial funding before they can secure significant investor funding. This means that not only do they have to accomplish a lot for their company with little funding, but they also may need to work for months with little or no salary. The experience they gained working in a science lab and living as a poor grad student gives them a significant advantage over any business major who wants to start a company.
Fiske added: ‘Nobody goes into a science career with the idea of getting rich. You go into science because you are passionate about a subject and because you love learning, discovery, and the idea of creating something new. Those same passions are at the heart of entrepreneurship.’
Scientists make great entrepreneurs
If you are a scientist who has ever thought about launching your own company, I encourage you to think seriously about this goal. The dramatic increase in focus on entrepreneurship in nearly all technical sectors in the last decade means it’s easier than ever to start your own company. Your strengths as a scientist position you to do well, and there are many scientist entrepreneur examples to learn from.
David Giltner has spent more than 20 years commercialising photonics technologies, and started TurningScience to provide training and support for scientists to enter the private sector. The author of Turning Science into Things People Need, he is a speaker and mentor on technology commercialisation, product development and career design. He has a BS and PhD in physics and holds seven patents in laser spectroscopy and optical communications.