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The Black Hole

The skillsets academic scientists need to start a new company

Most academic scientists are trained to believe that our skillsets and expertise are limited to our own academic focus, but they are completely independent of our field.


Earlier this year I participated as an invited lecturer at a workshop on innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership organized by the International Mentoring Foundation for the Advancement of Higher Education (IMFAHE).  While  the session was very well received, the discussion that ensued was particularly insightful and warrants exploring. (My session was titled “Test Your Idea. Take your idea into a project, a prototype, and a company.” It is one of a number of online courses offered each year for the purposes of enabling scientists to become innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders in their communities, and help them create a positive impact on society.)

The first two posts I wrote on the subject can be found here:

I have paraphrased the questions for succinctness and clarity.

“What kind of skills do you recommend before starting a company?”

I think most academic scientists already have the skills that they need. I don’t believe our limitations are our skillsets. One always wants to develop those, but at the graduate and postdoc level one already has a lot of training. What most of us are missing is recognizing those skillsets, their value to a new venture, and the confidence to take the first step in either realizing your ideas or, if it’s someone else’s idea, that you are interested in supporting, taking the first step to begin working with that person on it.

“Now that you have these experiences and information, do you think you would be able to go into a startup that’s not directly associated with your academic interests, for example in multimedia? Or is it essential to connect the startup idea with your own academic expertise?”

The former! We are trained to believe that our skillsets and expertise are limited to our own academic focus, whereas they are completely independent of our field. We may have chosen our field, or circumstances dictated it, but what makes a great scientist is not the field in which those skills were applied — but the skills themselves that have been learned and refined along the way. It is likely that if we are successful in our field, we would have been just as successful in any other field, and will be successful in any new field we choose to enter. The context in which we are applying those skills just constitutes a new learning curve, new knowledge, and familiarity with an area of research that we will acquire on exposure – and at this point you have demonstrated that you are great at learning things quickly. You can take time to read a ton of papers and bring yourself up to speed, then spend a bit of time working in that area and you will succeed just as well as in any other field.

I have always found it fascinating that we regard the application of scientific training as fundamentally different from the training others get in business, for instance, where the skillsets they develop are recognized to be broadly applicable to many different sectors. Businesses will often interview candidates with different backgrounds and experiences and, generally speaking, those candidates are not successful because of the field they trained in, but because they are great at learning about their market and sector very quickly and applying their skillset appropriately. The decision by the candidate is where they will choose to apply those skills.

The same is true for scientists. I have led many hiring rounds for various director- and executive-level recruitments and I have found that it matters less what specific sector a candidate has been working in. What matters more is evidence of the skillsets they will need in their new role, and the demonstration of success in their previous sector across those skillsets. There is an expectation that a high-performing scientist will be able to quickly teach themselves whatever they need to overcome the learning curve in a new area to achieve the same or a greater level of success in a new field because of additional experiences amassed along the way. We have all already demonstrated this ability: we did it when we joined our current lab. The challenge is to shorten the learning curve and pick things up much faster as we get more experience. At this point in your career, you already know how to do that.

“How good are online resources? Is there another way to learn these skillsets?”

They are as good as any today. You want to pull informational resources from all sorts of different places. If you are pulling from the internet, there are good and bad sources. Pull from trusted sources: primary, reputable publications, seminars, workshops, websites… There is also a human component: there are experts behind those publications, and it is worthwhile to identify them and talk to them. Experts can compress a lifetime’s worth of experience into a short conversation with you, which would make the learning curve a lot faster than trying to figure it out yourself from first principles.

Jonathan Thon
Jonathan Thon is a serial entrepreneur and founding CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon founded Stellular Bio where he served as CEO and chief scientific officer. Before Stellular Bio, Dr. Thon was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
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