What’s the most important business lesson you’ve learned in your career? You don’t have to answer that — it’s a trick question. If you’re reading this article, you’re most likely an academic scientist who’s wondering what it would be like to start your own company. You’ve slaved over your scientific degrees, proven yourself in the lab, and hit upon a clever technology or concept that you might be able to parlay into the commercial world. But if you’re like most academic scientists, chances are good that you’ve never had any formal business training.
Good news: You can still start a company and look forward to a wildly successful career with it. But don’t even think about doing it alone. If you’re going to start up a company, you’re going to need advice, funding, and lots of friends.
The first step of any successful company is a business plan, and that’s coincidentally the first place many scientists make mistakes. The single most common error in this process is not being clear about what problem you’re solving, according to Rowan Chapman, a partner at early-stage venture capital firm Mohr Davidow Ventures who cut her teeth at the MRC before working at Incyte Genomics and Rosetta Inpharmatics. “Fundamentally a company’s not about core science,” she says. The technology basis of a company can’t just be interesting, it has to solve a problem with the current standard. From there, of course, you’ll need to figure out whether there’s a market for your solution. Who will pay for it, and what will they be willing to pay? You don’t have to know the precise details just yet, but you will need to have a good sense before you can proceed.
You don’t have to — and indeed shouldn’t — tackle the business plan on your own. Chapman suggests that if your institution has an MBA program, it’s very likely you can take your idea to a business class and have MBA students work on the plan, market valuation, and lots of other number-crunching exercises. And if you’re at an institution with a good reputation for spinning off companies, chances are some venture capital firms have good relationships there already. Take advantage of that by sitting down with some VC folks for 15 minutes — remember, you’re not pitching them for funding, you’re just getting feedback on your idea.
Essentially, Chapman says, you want to make connections with people who spend their time thinking about business. Enter business plan competitions, hang out with entrepreneurs, or tap into the growing number of classes aimed at innovators just like you. This will eventually help you flesh out the team that will guide you with your startup, so consider networking a key step in the path.
As you get the company started, funding will become a top priority. The key there, says Chapman, is “to figure out what milestones really move the company forward, and try to fund those milestones.”
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel on your startup journey. Plenty of entrepreneurs have gone before you. Here are a few websites that offer tips, case studies, and venues to talk to experts.
Possibly the mother of all entrepreneur-encouragement websites, Startup Nation offers podcasts, case studies of successful companies, steps to open a business, and a busy forum for both aspiring and expert company founders. Led by Jeff and Rich Sloan, self-proclaimed “chief startupologists” and former venture capitalists who invested in genomic and proteomic companies.
A niche page from the Wall Street Journal, rounding up the newspaper’s basic tips and regular features relevant to an entrepreneurial audience. Includes advice from experts and opportunities to write in with questions.
From the same team that brings you Entrepreneur magazine, this website offers a slew of information such as a “coaches’ corner,” feature stories on facing common startup problems, a blog, and a 12-week timeline to starting up.