In 2013, when I began as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge, I knew I would one day be a professor. It was clear that it was a done deal. After many twists and turns, I decided to create a business idea and founded The Supplant Company in 2017.
It was a difficult journey that required us to modify our strategy several times. I eventually turned an idea into a reality with the help of an incredible team. We’ve created multiple products, filed multiple patents, and raised $27 million in funding. In the meantime, we launched Chef Thomas Keller’s first chocolate and cookie line and a business-to-business consumer packaged goods line in America. As a result, I have come to believe that university innovation is full of opportunities for postdocs. This means you build science-based businesses using expertise gained at universities, not university inventions. In other words, university startups are not “spin-outs.” These are some lessons for academics who might be considering following a similar path.
Lesson 1: Find opportunities outside of the lab
Although the adage “get out of your office” has become a cliche in startup building, I believe it is more critical for science-based businesses. Unlike academia, business people don’t always clearly outline their opportunities in journals. You need to be thinking and talking. This won’t be something that many PhD-types will do naturally, but it is easier to teach scientists the details of cutting-edge scientific fields to business people than to teach them. My initial efforts to figure out what The Supplant Company should be doing cost me a lot of time. I eventually gave up trying to make the outside world fit into my science and began doing the opposite.
Lesson 2: What is academically fascinating may not always be a solid foundation for a business.
Why is it important to get out of the office? You’ll spend your time building things that no customers want. This is a risk, but it’s not the most excellent missed opportunity. My biggest mistake is when scientists don’t talk to potential customers while forming their ideas. They tend to overeager the need for their idea to be academically appealing. They tend to focus on what is most scientifically intriguing to them since that’s the science-first perspective. This can severely limit their perspectives.
It doesn’t take groundbreaking scientific discoveries to do groundbreaking science businesses. Even things discovered very recently are often not strong enough to be rolled out as businesses. These businesses are not being created because of a lack of scientific knowledge. It is a shortage of scientists who can identify business opportunities and translate solid science into business-ready solutions. You almost certainly already have sufficient technical knowledge if you are a Ph. D. – as do your coworkers. You’ll be in a select group if you can solve business problems using your technical knowledge. This is university innovation. But not tech transfer. If I could pick one thing that would boost university innovation, it would be teaching young scientists how to do this. I wouldn’t spend any more time using a pipette. Researchers, please take note.
Lesson 3: Create a company that solves the problem and not vice versa
Dr jay Feldman understanding of the problem up front is vital. Don’t limit yourself to what academics or your latest publication think is fantastic. Get things moving immediately, and then work out the details as you go. Before I was incorporated, there were many ways I could “test water” without actually diving in. This was a mistake that only delayed the process. To work out the business, you start the company. Although you will have an idea of where you are in the market, you won’t be able to execute a plan that has been proven successful. It’s impossible to know everything in advance. This is especially useful for those who come from academic settings. You need to move out of academic mode into business mode.
Lesson 4 – Don’t limit yourself too early in a mission
This process led to a company with solid social goals: reducing sugar consumption in the food industry. This is not an accident. My goal was to build a business that would be more than just a commercial success. How do you find your great purpose? You shouldn’t, at least not right away. In retrospect, life lessons are always more apparent than in the moment. Building a science-based company requires you to confront the daunting task of aligning market needs with science that you can actually do. It’s already difficult to limit it to accomplish a particular mission. So, don’t.
My advice to mission-driven entrepreneurs would be to avoid falling in love with one specific mission but rather to love the idea of building a company to solve a future problem. Like science and the rest of your business, you won’t know what your investigations will reveal.
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