Professor? It’s ‘Academic Entrepreneur’ to You

As we mentioned on Monday in 3 Scientific Products We Need in Lab, this is Global Entrepreneurship Week.  It’s a time to raise awareness for, provide resources to and celebrate the individuals who take the step to start a company and follow a dream.  So academics- it’s time to put on your party hats because like it or not, we’re all in business now.

It’s certainly not uncommon for academics to start an outside company. In fact many of our biotech giants such as Genentech, Amgen and Chiron were founded or co-founded by academics.  But as it turns out, academics – particularly assistant professors – might rightly be called “academic entrepreneurs” without ever stepping outside of the university walls.  We pointed out in LinkedIn for Scientists that nearly half of us pursue a career in which we start our own lab.  That’s right, start our own… quite an entrepreneurial phrase.

Academic Entrepreneurs?

It all starts with a passion.  A passion to cure a disease.  A passion to make a better wheelchair.  Whatever the pursuit, the vast majority of scientists and entrepreneurs are out to change the world in some way.

Consider the career path of an academic (with the corresponding business world analogies):

• Research is not a haphazard process of discovery.  Professors write grant proposals (aka, Business plans) that describe the importance of their work (Their Mission) as well as the specific experiments (Products) that will be pursued.

• To obtain funding for their research, professors must submit grants to a number of agencies (aka, Find an investor) in hopes of being awarded the money.  This process can be slow, painful and full of rejection, but it’s hard to buy a centrifuge or create a product without cash.

• Once the funding comes in, professors must hire students and postdocs to do the work (aka, Hire employees).  A professor realizes it’s more efficient to hire people than to try to do everything alone.  However, PIs and CEOs can only hire as many people as they can pay.

• Once the money comes in, professors must periodically write progress reports detailing the work that’s been done to date.  The funding sources (aka, Shareholders or Investors) must feel that the progress is sufficient before deciding to renew the grant (Reinvest in the company).

• Understanding it takes money to run a lab, professors target grants to fields and agencies that have a better chance of funding (aka, Product development is market driven).  Professors can see the writing on the wall when a project is dead in the water.  A good professor will kill it (Eliminate unprofitable products) and move on.

• If a project yields a new reagent or procedure (aka, Product), professors may file patents and sell or license the reagents to a company that can further develop it and in the process make everyone a little money.

• When funding is tough, professors may need to let go of postdocs and even students (aka, Fire employees).  Even National Academy members aren’t exempt from the reality of making payroll.

• If money runs out and there’s no hope of obtaining more, the lab shuts down (aka, Files for bankruptcy).  Of course, having tenure is a major difference between professors and entrepreneurs, but even tenured professors can lose their labs.  They may get shuffled around to different positions within the university, but their dreams of running a lab at that institution are bankrupt.


Why it Matters

There are no guarantees in research and like entrepreneurs, academics take big risks in pursuit of their passion – and for this they should be commended.  However, to a large degree the academic environment trains researchers to be… academics.  Recognizing the true entrepreneurial spirit of professors may go a long way towards improving the training we receive and the environment we experience in academics.

Training students to become “academic entrepreneurs” will instill in them the skills necessary to succeed as a professor or to facilitate a transition out of the lab.  UCSF holds an annual “Idea to IPO” class in which grad students and postdocs spend a semester learning to turn an idea into a virtual company- some of which go on to obtain funding and become real (scientifically-related) companies.

In addition to classes, PIs can expand students’ training by involving them in more of the decision-making processes in the lab.  Learning to properly navigate complex situations and to make sound decisions can benefit students tremendously.

We also hope recognizing the similarities between academics and entrepreneurs may help reduce instances of academic bias.  Many PIs feel passionately that they have the best job in the world.  We should all be so lucky to feel that way about our chosen profession.  So who could blame them for wanting their prodigy to experience the same satisfaction?

Unfortunately, this academic enthusiasm occasionally comes at the expense of other careers.  After years of training in the academic environment, it’s not uncommon for students and postdocs to feel that pursuing a career off of the academic path is akin to failure.

It’s not about one career being better than the other- it’s about mutual respect and acknowledging that there are many ways for a scientist to contribute to research, whether in or out of an academic setting.

Academics, like entrepreneurs, should be celebrated this week for their risks, sacrifices and contributions to scientific research.  So be sure to wish your PI, or “academic entrepreneur”, a happy Global Entrepreneurship Week – just be prepared to explain why…



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7 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. So You Want to be an Entrepreneur… | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on November 19, 2010 at 5:43 am

    […] think there’s room for entrepreneurs in academics? Read our latest story about ‘Academic Entrepreneurs’ (aka, […]

  2. molly

    wrote on November 19, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    the 'academic bias' can vary by institution. i obtained my PhD from a place where many professors spun out companies of their own, so they were generally more receptive to non-academic careers.

  3. Science Career Development Resources | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on December 2, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    […] Professor?  It’s Academic Entrepreneur to You – like it or not, we’re all in business now- see how academics are really entrepreneurs in disguise […]

  4. Vik Gill

    wrote on December 9, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    Academics who embrace entrepreneurship and who can create synergies between their Universities, faculties, local businesses and the communities they serve, will be well-placed to enhance their profiles, co-produce sexy research, and perhaps profit personally, not to mention keep their jobs in the austerity era. Bring it on.

  5. Grant Writing: Is "Grant Creep" Choking Out PIs?

    wrote on June 20, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    […] PI could just as well be described as an ‘academic entrepreneur‘, since running a lab is much like managing a company.  PIs must raise money to fund […]

  6. Omri Allouche

    wrote on May 9, 2012 at 2:30 am

    Interesting. As a Dr.-Jackyll/Mr.-Hyde-style person (hi-tech entrepreneur in internet advertising and a scientist in computational biology), the similarity between fields is very clear to me. So what can one field learn from the other?

    There are many ideas and concepts professors can learn from hi-tech entrepreneurs, but I am left wondering what hi-tech companies can learn from academic research.

    I think the largest success of the academia is in HR – university labs succeed in attracting very hi quality workers for low salaries. Why is that?

    Employee recruitment, for example, becomes much easier when the professor's "company" resides among its potential "employees". Furthermore, they are often exposed to its "products" in their university courses. HiTech companies can try similar things – give talks to student clubs or present in a departmental seminar or courses.

    Some universities have a rotations program, opening students to fresh ways of thought and assisting them in choosing a lab. I wonder if something like that can work for hi-tech companies.

    The salaries of research students are also significantly lower than that of hi tech employees. How do laboratories manage to attract top brains, and can hi-tech companies use that? Google's 20% time is one direction – there might be others.

    These are just a few of the ideas – I'd be happy to hear your thoughts here or in a private message.


  7. alan@benchfly

    wrote on May 24, 2012 at 11:52 am

    Great ideas- very interesting to flip it around and see how companies may learn from the university model as well! With respect to your rotation idea, that's would be fantastic — allowing students/future employees to rotate through companies in something more coordinated than individual internships could be really valuable. Northeastern University in Boston has a program that requires students to do rotations in companies as part of their education. In addition to enabling the student to test out the companies, it's a great way for them to make connections and build relationships with people who can ultimately hire them.

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