PhD to Business – Lessons Learned

by jtaylor on November 11, 2011

This post was originally posted on the Nature Biotech Trade Secrets blog

The folks at Nature Biotech asked us authors for a description of how we’ve navigated our careers from bench to business.  My story is still a work in progress, but as a recent Ph.D. I do have some lessons learned of things you can do to prepare yourself for a career beyond research and into entrepreneurism.  First here’s a brief bio to give insight into my perspectives and biases:

I completed an Engineering Physics undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia, with a focus on wireless and photonics.   During this time, I worked at my first startups as an engineer, which ultimately sewed the entrepreneurial seeds.   Following, I decided to pivot and apply my engineering skills to health and completed a Ph.D. in Genetics at the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB).  My decision to conduct a Ph.D. was driven by my interest in the commercialization of advanced technologies and the ISB was a fantastically entrepreneurial organization to pursue this goal.  Concurrent with my Ph.D., I was fortunate to work as a venture capital fellow at the ISB-affiliated venture capital firm, the Accelerator Corp.  This was a tremendously valuable experience and during my three year tenure, the Accelerator team started 7 biotech companies.  After my Ph.D., I started looking for my next startup opportunity and met my co-founding team while working at an innovative technology transfer group, the Centre for Drug Research and Development.  Approximately, 1.5 years ago I jumped ship to be a co-founder and CEO of Precision NanoSystems, where we are developing technology at the convergence of drug delivery, nanotechnology and genomics.

During my tenure as a Ph.D. student I often contemplated how to best use the degree to achieve my business goals and as you are likely realizing, the path from bench to business is not always clear.  Here are some lessons I learned during my degree that may be helpful for those wanting to pursue an entrepreneurial or business career:

Experience more than you Ph.D. offers.

Graduate or postgraduate studies are designed as a scientific training ground for a career as a scientist or professor.  The knowledge gained is narrow and the skills learned are specific.  For anyone serious about transitioning off the bench, you will need to actively pursue additional experiences and skills outside of your research work.  There are many ways to do this during your degree, and I found that volunteering at an organization in an area of interest is one of the best ways to get your feet wet.  My time at the Accelerator Corp. (which I initiated through a volunteer position) was one of the best experiences of my Ph.D. There I learned a tremendous amount about biotech, startups, and venture capital.  I was very fortunate to have a Ph.D. supervisor supportive of my entrepreneurial interests and was able to dedicate half of a day to a full day a week to the experience (in addition to most of my evenings and weekends).  If you are less fortunate, you may receive push-back from your supervisor, who may not recommend taking the time away from your thesis or papers.  However I strongly disagree.  Ph.D. and Post-doc work is highly repetitive and obtaining orthogonal experiences will greatly enrich your time as a student.  Further, your supervisor will benefit from his or her student’s success, be it in academia or industry, and should be supportive of those that demonstrate such ambitions.

Do not be wedded to a given technology. 

During a Ph.D. or Post-Doc you spend a tremendous amount of time on a specific topic.  At the outset you may feel completely invested in your corner of the technology world and that you should pursue a career involving that technology. However, this can be very limiting and greatly reduce your opportunities for success.  Technology trends change constantly and what you picked 6 years prior may not be your best opportunity moving forward.  Once you publish your papers or submit your thesis, take this unique transition period to adjust what technologies or business area you want to spend the next 5-10 years.  Compare each potential area of interest as though you are making an investment (your career), and be prepared to defend your choice to your future self a few years out.

Want a job, create a company. 

Lastly, the best way to gather vast business, management, and leadership skills is to start your own venture.  Being a first time entrepreneur is akin to drinking from a firehose and this time will greatly accelerate your experience and perspectives on our industry. Starting a company may seem like a daunting endeavor, but considering the potential career upside, it is actually a pretty reasonable proposition. Even if you fail, you will learn a tremendous amount, meet a community of like-minded folks, and become comfortable with taking career altering risks.  I suggest spending at least an extra 6 months at your institution to find an idea with legs and try to get it off the ground. Don’t do any bench work at this time, but use the period to find and test the commercial viability of potential new ventures.  Be bold – talk to your tech transfer office to see if any technology is looking for a founder, ask professors to fund you from existing grants while you examine the commercial viability of a technology, join entrepreneur communities, attend founder speed-dating events, etc. And if you’re your venture doesn’t fly, this time is a drop in a bucket compared with the 6 years just spent padding your academic CV.

  • Forkhead

    Nice article JT. Pretty solid advice all the way around. When did you know you had a good enough idea to start a company around, and what was your approach to finding others to participate (ie provide advice, money, contacts etc.)?

  • James Taylor

    Hey thanks.  The approach that worked for us, was to develop the academic technology with the goal of starting the company.   With that, you’re then able to bring money into the project via non-dilutive sources, like grants, and give the entrepreneur some time and support before having to go out alone.   In regards to looking for other people to participate and get advice from, I think it’s best to approach people early.  If the technology is cool, most people want to help out. 

  • Rsierra

    I just came across this article and found it very insightful. I was curious to know what your volunteer experience was like at Accelerator Corp.? More specifically, what did you do as a volunteer?

  • Solaris

    Great Advice JT. As a recent PhD, I am in soul searching mode and would love to work for a start up or a VC firm.
    In your opinion , do you think working for a startup with a field/product different from what I studied is fine?

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