Academic research can learn from how startup companies operate, writes Matthew Wallenstein, an associate professor at Colorado State University and a cofounder of Growcentia, at Science.
Partway through his career, Wallenstein realized he was interested in applied research and found a starting point in one of his projects examining how microorganisms affect plants' growth and ability to tolerate stress, such as that from drought. To transform this into the basis of a startup company, he and one of his postdocs applied for the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps Teams Program that helps NSF grantees uncover and develop business ideas.
Through that 10-week program, Wallenstein came to understand that speaking with potential customers — in this case, farmers — was a key part of developing their product. He notes that he's since started a company and it has begun to sell microbes.
This approach, Wallenstein adds, can also help basic researchers focus their work. By talking to farmers and agricultural companies about the challenges they face, he says that researchers can then identify areas of study they might not have otherwise considered.
"One of our first 'aha' moments came during a conversation with a major agricultural company," he writes. "We met with a staff scientist the company had tasked with initiating a new program in soil health, but nobody at the company even knew how to define soil health, never mind how to improve it. Here was a problem we academics could help solve by translating fundamental scientific research into an actionable management program to improve soil health."