Turning Scientists Into Entrepreneurs

How do scientists take up the challenge of becoming entrepreneurs?

In Cork, Ireland last summer six teams of scientists came together to explore that very question at the SOSventures IndieB.io start-up accelerator program. Now after demo day more than half those teams will receive the funding to make their dreams come true.

Bill Liao is a Venture Capitalist

So how did a bunch of biotech scientists and students transform themselves into budding entrepreneurs in three months?

To get at the answer let us indulge in a little personal history and some philosophy. Growing up as a computer nerd I often wondered at the ability some people had to be persuasive.

It was not until my late 20s that I realized that those people were also the ones earning all the money and that my ability to regurgitate lots of facts was not helping me earn very far above minimum wage.
I decided that I needed to learn how to be persuasive and indeed how to sell stuff as I was working just as hard as the sales guys and yet I was not paid anywhere near what they were.

Sparing you the gory details of my personal journey I will share a few core lessons from that time in my life:Who you are is more about a future you glimpse than it is about your past.

Context is Decisive

Context is decisive. If you create the right context then desired behaviors will emerge.

To persuade anyone of anything you need to get them to care and caring is best achieved through well-articulated, true stories (even if the truths are future ones).

Start-ups are some of the highest-pressure places to work. It requires a series of efforts of balance not unlike learning to ride three different bicycles in three different directions at once for the first time.

You need to balance how you spend money. You need to balance the efforts you make between getting a product to fit the market and making it profitable to produce, sell, market and maintain. You need to balance your team and their efforts.

To have the will to make it through the start-up process people have to learn a variety of relatively straightforward skills, their teams need to gel and they have to become obsessed with making something change in the world. Above all this they need to be able to articulate what they are doing in such a way as to be able to persuade nearly anyone that what they are doing is worthy of the attention, investment, purchase, belief, time and care of others.

Commerce Not Education

Scientists most often come from a research background in an academic setting. Academia operates under a particular covenant. The pursuit, discovery and dissemination of new truths is both noble and essential to our species and our culture. Every technology we possess owes its origin to hard-working and dedicated scientists who have labored long to uncover fundamental insights.

That said there are drawbacks to the academic covenant and some are thrown into focus when scientists try to become entrepreneurs. The fundamental underpinning of scientific discovery is the scientific method, which precludes anything from ever being held as truth, leading to a culture of tearing down others’ hypotheses as a routine activity.

There is a culture of being dispassionate as opposed to persuasive. Competitive, and sometimes combative, argument and reasoning are used in combination with the citation of others to win followers to a theory.

The academic covenant and the context of education are in many ways directly at odds with the covenant of commerce and as a result those few scientists who do decide to found companies almost never create lean, low-risk start-ups.

All the SOSventures accelerator programs are spaces where people come and operate under the covenant of entrepreneurship; where what is valued by the community is often completely different from that valued by communities operating under a different covenant such as academia.

A Combination Of Hot-House, Live Theater And Boot Camp

Rather than seeking the perfect proof of a product’s efficacy it is more important to make sure that a product fits a market. Rather than persuading people with rational argument and facts, there is a higher emphasis placed on emotion, story and getting people to care.

There is also a large emphasis placed on getting things done speedily and cost effectively rather than exhaustively testing to gain perfection.

The best accelerator programs provide a combination of hot-house, live theater and boot camp where you must collaborate to succeed and where self determination is placed above instruction, where visibility is placed above rigor. That is not to say rigor is to be ignored — far from it. The products must work and deliver value, yet they must do it cost effectively. Every action has a cost and every cost must be managed and understood.

Such environments are rare in the world and the IndieB.io program in Cork is the first to tackle synthetic biologists and produce teams who have made the jump from one covenant and context to another. The program is now open for new applicants both in San Francisco and in Cork next year and we look forward to making a new batch of future scientific dreams into commercial realities.




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