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Graduate Matters

Turning ideas into action: How to start a company to leverage your research

There’s lots of support out there – if you know where to look.


Technology transfer project manager: “I think there’s a golden opportunity to build a science company here.”


Scholars: “We’ve considered it, but how?”

I regularly have this type of conversation with university students and profs seeking to leverage the results of their research.

Foreign studies suggest that more than 40 per cent of graduate students want to go into business, but only six or seven per cent actually do it. Though these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, the fact remains that few scholars end up putting their plans into action. It makes sense that many researchers want to become entrepreneurs, but how they should go about it seems to remain a well-kept secret.

Pandemics, financial instability, labour shortages, aging populations, climate change – our world is facing a slew of pressing challenges that call for innovative solutions. Research projects could offer solutions, and students are the keys to unlocking them.

At its core, scientific entrepreneurship consists of creating a business to leverage a solution developed in a lab using scientific processes. This marketable innovation flows directly from research results. Scientific entrepreneurship is also a transformative personal journey. Researchers aren’t generally entrepreneurs at heart, but they can learn to be. If you’re a graduate student aspiring to be an entrepreneur, keep reading for some useful tips to turn your ideas into action.

Finding the right environment

Not all labs are alike. Some focus on basic research, others on applied research with industrial partners. Differences aside, the key is finding a positive environment that welcomes your business idea and gives you the tools for success. Mainly, this means having a professor’s support throughout your endeavour. If you’re just starting your doctoral studies, have you found this environment conducive to coming up with a business idea? If you’re nearing the end of your doctoral studies, have you considered doing an entrepreneurial postdoc like the ones offered at V1 Studio?

Time management

Creating a business requires a considerable amount of your own time and energy. You have to budget time to focus solely on building your business. The farther along you get, the more support you’ll receive from organizations and individuals who are ready to invest their time and money into your work. To honour and respect the involvement of those who’ve chosen to support you, you’ll have to sift through the proposals so that only the best ideas remain. Entrepreneurship isn’t a game, it isn’t easy, and in order to succeed, you have to focus on your goals, while also making sure you’re not forgetting about your thesis project.

Understanding intellectual property (IP)

The objective of doctoral theses is to push the limits of knowledge in a given field. This is an extremely difficult task requiring sustained effort. In many cases, this work leads to discovering new technologies, processes or procedural or organization methods that, once thought out and refined, can have a positive impact on society, the environment and the economy. By protecting your IP through patents, trade secrets or copyrights, you turn your creativity into value. Since universities usually own inventions created on their premises, the first step to protect your IP is generally to file an invention disclosure with your university. Once that’s done, a technology transfer organization or service like Axelys can help you develop your invention and take it from laboratory to market. Creating a business is a way to achieve this. The organization that owns the IP can grant your business a licence to market the technology.

Demystifying hard and soft skills

There are a number of myths about entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship, but don’t be deceived — entrepreneurs aren’t heroes or stars. To succeed, you have to believe in your mission, vision and values with courage and resilience, instill those beliefs in your company and follow them consistently. Taking stock of your skills can help you assess your strong suits and your limitations. People like guidance counselors, mentors and career coaches can steer you toward useful tools, like 2nd Lab.

Remember: successful entrepreneurs know how to accept their limitations and seek help, which is why you’ll have to recruit colleagues with transversal skills you don’t have or don’t wish to learn. No business can exist without a team. Doctoral students are usually good at finding solutions and developing technologies, but they also have to sell the technology to customers, define results and actions and build a vision for the company. This requires a diverse and inclusive team that brings different perspectives and skills to the table.

Knowing your market, your impact, and your value proposition

The innovation and science business creation process is a way to conduct research. Rather than reviewing the literature to see what innovation your scientific project brings to your field of research, your goal is to identify how your invention can meet a client’s needs. To pinpoint this, you have to interact with players in your niche market. By understanding the problem you’re trying to solve, you’ll be able to offer a high-value product or service. This process calls for thoroughness, passion, resilience, self-sacrifice, and a deep love for what you’re doing— all traits many researchers develop while working on their PhD. You’ll thus learn to navigate uncertainty and show how your business can add value and have an impact.

Leveraging the innovation ecosystem

Creating a scientific business from public research can be costly and time- and energy-consuming. You’ll need a lot of help from the innovation ecosystem. Imagine you’re building a biotech company based on very preliminary results and manage to develop a recognized product or service with regulatory approval. Researchers often don’t know what doors to knock on, but rest assured there are many support structures in place.

University-industry partnership liaison offices (each university has at least one person you can talk to directly) and public technology transfer firms (sometimes innovation management services are provided by firms like Axelys or Innovate Calgary) can be a good starting point. Entrepreneurship centres and incubators provide precious assistance during the incubation stage. Finally, finance companies, accelerators, venture capital firms and other firms or networks aimed at supporting scientific businesses can further propel your growth. Accelerators (for instance: Health Innovation Hub (H2i), Creative Destruction Lab) offer access-to-growth programs while angel investors and venture capital firms can finance your business in exchange for an equity stake.

Governments and municipalities also have innovation support programs that can fund part of your development (e.g., National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP). You can also join an enrichment or entrepreneurship training program like Innovation + Impact Network of Canada (I-INC), Quebec Scientific Entrepreneurship Program (QcSE) or Lab2Market. Don’t be shy to call on a business coach or mentor — it’s the best way to make sure you’re knocking on the right doors at the right time.

Scientific entrepreneurship doesn’t just have an impact on society; it’s a great way to leverage your transversal skills and learn new skills that are extremely useful in professional settings outside academia. Pushing yourself to be adventurous is the key to success. Regardless of how it turns out, you’ll learn a lot about entrepreneurship, the world of innovation, and especially yourself.

Gad Sabbatier
Gad Sabbatier is a project manager at Axelys, a Quebec public research innovation development and transfer firm. Dr. Sabbatier also co-founded 2nd Lab, a non-profit that offers mentoring and professional and career development to help early-career researchers have a positive impact on society.
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