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Can Graduate Students Be Entrepreneurs?

One of the most challenging aspects of graduate school is exploring opportunities that go beyond the traditional academic science path. To understand these paths better, I started researching different opportunities in which other graduate students had found success and fulfillment. One area that fascinates nearly everyone I speak with in science is entrepreneurship. In this post, I’d like to share some of my experience learning about entrepreneurship and ways to get involved through taking advantage of programs available to graduate students and interviewing a colleague about her experience starting her own company.

 

NCET2 Demo Days 2017

My first step in learning about this post-grad path was a course offered at a neighboring university (I am an academic, after all), entitled, “Life Science Entrepreneurship.” This course was designed as an introduction to the basics of entrepreneurship for advanced degree holders at the Texas Medical Center. Meanwhile, I also applied to be a University Fellow for the National Council for Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer (NCET2). The focus of this organization is to bring together university startups, venture capitalists, and policymakers to provide networking opportunities and to highlight the programs offered through public policy efforts available to these startups. The goal is to communicate how basic science research and subsequent commercialization is a vital part of the United States economy.

 

After being selected for the NCET2 internship program, I attended their recent 2017 Demo Days in Washington D.C. At this event, they brought together the aforementioned network of stakeholders to help university startups gain access and expand their resources and network. University startup participants in this program can be trainees, recent trainees, PIs, or combinatorial groups selected by the corporate venture capital divisions. The startups pitch their technologies to the corporate venture capitalists (VC’s). If a VC is interested in learning more, they are scheduled for individual meetings to explore partnership opportunities. In addition to the VC access, the startups are also educated on government programs seeking to commercialize technologies discovered in the lab.

 

Resources for University Startups: I-Corps and SBIR

Often as scientists, we may develop a new technology, technique, or entirely new model system for our own purposes, and it may not immediately be apparent that such technology development has commercialization potential. To allow scientists a space to explore this potential, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has introduced the Innovation-Corps program, or I-Corps, aimed at helping scientists develop their ideas and foster entrepreneurship. The MD Anderson Cancer Center recently hosted an I-Corps workshop, where we learned about the types of entrepreneurial skill-building workshops offered through I-Corps. The topics covered included developing meaningful value propositions for consumers, how to conduct consumer interviews in order to deliver a product that fulfills a customer need, and the process of writing a competitive business plan for venture capital funding. To be eligible for the I-Corps program, you must have a technology funded by a recent, relevant NSF grant, or be selected in a “regional node” which are set up around the United States. Upon completing a regional or national I-Corps program, you are then eligible for the Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) programs that provide funding needed for the growth of these companies, similar to an angel investor. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also has an SBIR/STTR program, although its eligibility requirements differ.

 

Other pathways to entrepreneurship

These opportunities also led me to think about other points of entry for graduate students to pursue entrepreneurship. I didn’t have to look too far. A fellow graduate student in the Molecular and Human Genetics program at Baylor College of Medicine, Brittany Barreto, has taken on entrepreneurship in an endeavor separate from her Ph.D dissertation work. This struck me as a pretty unique situation, so I caught up with her to gain some insights in our abbreviated interview below.

 

Q: Can you describe your startup and your goals for your company?

Pheramor is pioneering the next generation of match-making. Our service aims to reduce the number of failed first dates by providing matches that are more likely to lead to success. Pheramor’s product will include a web and mobile interface for singles to communicate and a direct-to-customer genetic sequencing kit. We will sequence genes associated with human attraction and compatibility and incorporate this information into our matching algorithm. Based on these data, our machine learning algorithm will aid our customers to filter through the thousands of online singles to find their perfect match.”

 

Q: How did you become interested in entrepreneurship as a graduate student?

“Since I was an undergraduate, I knew that I did not want to do academics and wanted to go to industry. In my first year of graduate school, a post-doc asked me, ‘What does industry mean?’ I realized at that point, I wasn’t sure! So I decided I needed to find a mentor from a local biotech company. As it turns out, Houston does not have many large biotech companies. Instead it has a strong startup community. At first I did not think I had the entrepreneurship gene but slowly but surely I realized I was made for this.”

 

Q: What advice do you give to other graduate students who want to start a company?

“The road is not well traveled. You will have to navigate the process by yourself very often. You will wonder why you’re not just taking the standard route and apply for a post-doc. Your thesis committee will be confused as to why you’re trying something so unconventional. That’s why you’ll need to make friends—lots of them! It’s all about the network. Contact local startups and ask to meet with them. Buy them coffee and pick their brain about their road to entrepreneurship. You’ll be surprised how receptive and open they are to mentoring you. Then follow up with them every few weeks with an update about yourself. Maintain these contacts, they are your company’s lifeline! Pheramor would not have grown so quickly if I didn’t have people experienced in entrepreneurship backing me up and showing me the ropes.”

 

Q: What is your ultimate career goal?

“I used to always have a 10 year career plan. Entrepreneurship has changed me to not knowing what next week will look like! All I know for sure is I want to graduate with my PhD this year, become the full-time CSO [Chief Scientific Officer] of Pheramor, and see where that takes me! Being an entrepreneur means feeling comfortable with risk and the unknown including what your life looks like even within the next year.”

 

Conclusion

Entrepreneurship is often quoted as an experiential learning process; therefore, no two paths of entrepreneurship look alike. However, the first step in the process is awareness and being receptive to the opportunities—wherever they may lead you.

 

 

Featured Image: Flickr user uberof202 ff, www.uberoffices.comuberoffices.com/blog/image-sharing/  CC BY-SA 2.0

 

Resources:

 

Grzeskowiak, Caitlin. 2017 Dec. 7. How to transition to a biotech startup after your PhD | PLOS ECR Community Blog.

https://blogs.staging.plos.org/thestudentblog/2016/12/07/draft-how-to-transition-to-a-biotech-startup-after-your-phd/

 

Life Science Entrepreneurship Course

https://sites.google.com/view/mgmt633/

 

NCET2 University Entrepreneurs Internship

https://ncet2.org/internship.html

 

National Council for Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer (NCET2)

https://ncet2.org

 

American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream. 2014. Sept. 16.

http://www.amacad.org/content/Research/researchproject.aspx?d=1276

 

NCET2 Demo Day 2017 Conference

https://ncet2.org/2017-annual-conference/2017-demo-day.html

 

Information about I-Corps program

https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/i-corps/about.jsp

 

I-Corps Regional Node Information

https://www.nsf.gov/awards/award_visualization.jsp?org=NSF&pims_id=504806&ProgEleCode=8045&from=fund

 

NIH sponsored SBIR program

https://sbir.nih.gov

Discussion
  1. I really like this article, since I founded a company myself. I am from the Netherlands and moved to Berlin, Germany to found a startup called Boxie24 . I first worked nearly 5 years at Deloitte as a CPA Auditor. Being able to see how companies operate was a huge plus. Few friends of mine in Berlin who started businesses immediately after they finished studying. I think the biggest problem for any new company with young entrepreneurs is the lack of experience and your more likely to make a mistake.
    However it should not let them be stopped, if you have a good idea and your work for it every day, you will succeed eventually.

  2. I totally agree, Gerrit! Many entrepreneurs I’ve spoken to have pointed out it is much easier to create new startups after you’ve done it before. Thanks for reading!

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