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Academic Entrepreneurs

Most research scientists and academics at some point or other in their careers come around to the notion that they ought to be able to make a few bucks off of their educations, their nutty ideas, and experiments. But what a risk it would be to quit a stable university job to jump on with a company that could go belly-up by the next quarter.

Javier Garcia-Martinez wants to encourage scientists to pursue their entrepreneurial daydreams. He says the academic world and the so-called 'real world' (not the one on MTV) go hand in hand, and investigators need not choose between these two worlds.

There is a third way, he writes in Science Insider, and that is academic entrepreneurship.

"Today, many successful academic entrepreneurs show us that it is possible to be part of the publication race while commercializing scientific findings," Garcia-Martinez writes. He co-founded a company called Rive Technology offering a technology for diffusion limited reactions with applications in multiple areas. He also is a professor of chemistry and director of the Molecular and Nanotechnology Lab at the University of Alicante and a visiting professor at Princeton.

There are some barriers to academics launching startups and spinoffs, he admits. It requires a "rare blend" of academic and technical rigor and business-savvy, and the culture at universities can be a deterrent because many PIs think that students and postdocs should focus on research and not on business education.

Still, just look at all the success stories. The number of patents and spinoffs launched by academics is growing, and many universities do support academic entrepreneurs. Garcia-Martinez points to a study which found that MIT alumni have created over 28,500 active companies with total annual sales of $2 trillion.

He started Rive after he entered the MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition as a postdoc in 2004. He didn't win the $50,000, but the courses he took to develop his business plan, many of which are now available online for free, taught him useful lessons that he was able to use in launching the company.
Rive the next year, and three years later secured $14 million in capital for R&D, and later reeled in another $67 million in financing to commercialize nanostructured catalysts for producing diesel and gasoline.

He says that maintaining an academic career has been helpful to his private sector activities.

"It has allowed me to keep abreast of the most forward-looking results in my field, think more broadly and critically about how to transfer my technology, develop new science that could lead to new business opportunities, and identify and recruit new talent."