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Business of science: The transferable skills that straddle academia and industry

J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham portrait. She has founded two consultancies to improve diversity in brewing.

Credit: Crafted For All, LLC

Adam Levy finds out about the transferable skills that can help academic scientists in the business world, and how some entrepreneurs have roles that straddle both academia and industry.

How does graduate school and academia prepare you for entrepreneurship and a commercial career?

J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, a social scientist who swapped a faculty position to launch a craft beer consultancy, says: “I’ve been in the position of acting as a department chair, and like most of us in who’ve done kind of full time, faculty appointments, have to navigate colleagues, navigate administration. We simultaneously do a lot, and a lot of things of consequence, prepping courses, building a curriculum, maintaining our research programs.

“The complexities of navigating those spaces provided me with a great head start to doing client work. To be honest, client work is a lot easier in comparison to navigating personalities in academia.”

Javier Garcia Martinez, who founded Rive Technology and now combines a business role with an academic position at the University of Alicante, Spain, adds: “Our education as scientists in terms of rigour, looking at data, connecting the dots, makes us very well equipped to launch a startup.

“Any group leader is also an entrepreneur. You need to raise money from industry or from government, you need to deliver papers on time, present in conferences, you need to hire, you need to inspire your team, you need a vision, you need to develop new technologies.”

“I know when my students come to my class I can share with them not only what's in the textbooks, but also my own personal experience on why a patent is important, and how to create a team.”

This is the final episode in our six-part Business of science series. Previous episodes looked at investor pitches, registering patents, technology transfer teams, scaling up and learning from setbacks.

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Adam Levy finds out about the transferable skills that can help academic scientists in the business world, and how some entrepreneurs have roles that straddle both academia and industry.

Adam Levy 0:09

Hello, I'm Adam Levy, and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. This six-part series, Business of Science, breaks down how to commercialize your research.

Welcome to this sixth and final episode in the series, which has looked at the crucial steps to spin off success: pitching, patents, tech transfer, scaling up, and, in last week's episode, setbacks.

But today we're doing things a little differently and looking at the transfer of skills between the business and academic worlds.

What is it about graduate school and the things you learn there that equip you for entrepreneurship and a commercial career?

And how would it work if you decide to return to academia after launching a startup, or even to have a more portfolio career that straddles both academia, and business?

Patrick Anquetil is founder and CEO of Portal Instruments, commercializing a product for needle free injection of drugs.

Before entering business, he completed his PhD at MIT. And so he has some thoughts on how graduate school prepares you for the commercial world.

Patrick Anquetil 1:25

You know, I think the PhD actually really prepares you for that. It was I think, I think it was a PhD, as I like to say, you're sort of the army of one, you can do anything, right?

And if you don't know it, well, you know, to figure it out. And I think it's the same thing. I think the young generation has really figured out how to kind of almost do like mini-PhDs in those in those areas and find the knowledge that they need is very fascinating.

So yeah, PhDs can do it.

Adam Levy 1:50

To look a little deeper what academia and business both gain through crossover, we have two in depth interviews in today's episode.

The first is with chemist Javier Garcia Martinez, who you may have heard on previous episodes of the series.

Although Javier made the transition to commercialize research, he still has one foot firmly in the door of academia.

He's based both at the University of Alicante in Spain, as well as at Rive Technology, working on nanotechnology-based catalysts.

So I started out by asking him how well academia prepares you for the commercial world.

Javier Garcia Martinez 2:27

I usually say that any group leader is also an entrepreneur.

You need to raise money from industry or from government, you need to deliver on time, either papers, present in conferences, you need to hire, you need to inspire your team, you need a vision, you need to develop new technologies.

So any researcher, any good group leader, is by definition, a high tech entrepreneur.

So I'm saying this because I want to convey the message that any group leader or young scientist who is considering to start a company is well equipped, in fact, to do that.

And if you feel that you are you are missing something, either you can learn it, or you can partner with others with with a team that is good at doing things that you don't know, or that you don't want to do.

And the other thing I would say is that our education as scientists in terms of rigour, looking at the data, connecting the dots, it actually makes you very well equipped to start a high-tech startup.

So in a way, we have this picture in our mind that academia is one side of the cliff, and there is a huge gap.

And in the other side of the ocean, there is industry.

It is the same person. And yeah, there are people in academia that don't want to talk to industry.

Yes, there are people in industry that think that we are in our ivory tower, we are useless.

But that kind of thinking is not very useful. And let's embrace the reality that we are doing pretty much the same thing just with different objectives.

Adam Levy 4:17

But what about the other way around? What can you bring to academia, from life and business and entrepreneurship?

Javier Garcia Martinez 4:27

By being an entrepreneur I learned so many different things. I obtained soft skills that are extremely useful.

Being a better leader, understanding the technology, the industry better.

I know when my students come to my class I can share with them not only what's in the textbooks, but also my own personal experience on why a patent is important, how to create a team, where chemistry might feel it is heading to.

And same thing as a group leader. When I talk companies to get money to support my research,I I speak the language, but altogether it just made me a more complete scientist with a broader vision of my own field.

Adam Levy 5:10

Now, often I think we have this idea that you have to somehow choose between the two,. Once you're out of academia that's it, you're in the business world. Now why do you think that isn't the case? Why do you think it's possible, maybe even good, to have one foot in each door?

Javier Garcia Martinez 5:28

Well, the first thing I would say is that I don't want to encourage everybody to do both things at the same time.

No, everybody is called to become an entrepreneur, not everybody is called to be in academia. It is not only possible. What we see now is these trends that university professors are more involved in the commercialization of their own research.

And by doing so their research is more relevant.

I guess that are also we are also able to raise more funds to support our research group.

I felt on a few occasions, I have to admit, but I felt that Eureka moment a few times in my life.

But it's equally fulfilling, if not more, when you see that new material being used at commercial scale, because you realize how many years it took you and your team to take that discovery from the lab to the market.

Adam Levy 6:29

Now academia is a difficult career at the best of times, and so is running a business.

What do you think is the hardest thing about about doing both of these things simultaneously?

Javier Garcia Martinez 6:42

Well, I wouldn't say it's normally hard, but impossible to do both things at the same time by yourself.

You don't need to do everything by yourself. You can delegate. You can work with other people that are better than you at different things.

So if you want to pursue both careers at the same time, probably that's a recipe for failure.

But if you're smart, and you realize what you should be doing in your lab and in your business, you can enjoy a wonderful career with a significant impact.

And actually seeing how your discoveries are being applied, which is a great, great feeling.

Adam Levy 7:23

What does leading a company actually give you in a in a more academic context?

Javier Garcia Martinez 7:29

So in 2019, I sold my company to W R Grace.

And then I was thinking, "What do I want to do next?"

Then it became a possibility to run for president of of IUPACT (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry). And I thought "This is perfect timing for me"

I got some skills as founder of a company and group leader in my university. And I thought, why not? Why not? It will be ideal that a scientific union will have a president with this kind of background.

The skills that I got, in industry, especially as a founder, were having a vision and being able to inspire a team to to achieve that.

And also things like, a sense of urgency, being productive, to build a more agile institution.

And and that's why I decided to run for president of IUPACT because I wanted to bring all those skills and that vision to a very large organization to make it more impactful, and making sure that chemistry can contribute to building a more sustainable future.

Adam Levy 8:42

So purely on a personal level, how do you feel about that decision to enter the commercial world?

Javier Garcia Martinez 8:48

Let me tell you that becoming an entrepreneur made me a much better scientist, a much better educator.

And it has been an amazing educational opportunity. Because I'm a chemist I know my field.

But working in industry, and actually commercializing a new discovery, has provided me with new skills, with a broader vision of my own field.

And it has been an incredible experience. But the most difficult thing has been just don't don't know in the path.

There were so many things that I didn't know. So yes, I didn't know what to do. I was probably very naive.

But I did recognize that I have to, to work with others. Because scientists we know what to do in the lab. We have very good training, in terms of doing research, but very little knowledge on how to start a company.

Adam Levy 9:49

That was Javier Garcia Martinez. As Javier made clear, there's a lot to gain in both directions through links between business and academia.

And that's true. Even when the business itself isn't directly related to academic research.

J Jackson-Beckham is a craft beer connoisseur who left her academic career in communication and cultural studies to set up a consultancy called Crafted for All, as well as a nonprofit organization called Craft By EDU.

J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham 10:20

So Crafted for All is a consultancy that helps craft beverage organizations who are looking to develop more inclusive, equitable and just organizational practices.

Adam Levy 10:32

Between being principal for Crafted for All and executive director for Craft By EDU, J has a lot of different work to juggle.

J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham 10:42

I honestly would describe my daily life as entirely chaotic.

And like, there's usually no less than a half dozen things going on simultaneously.

Adam Levy 10:54

Given how far J's work might seem from the world of academia, I started out by asking her whether shifting career meant starting from scratch, or whether she was able to take crucial skills with her.

J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham 11:06

So in some regards, it absolutely was starting over from scratch.

And in some regards, it was like kind of free pass to jump over a lot of things that other folks maybe had to go through.

So determining kind of what was what was actually maybe the most challenging part.

Adam Levy 11:29

What was some of the things that you were able to translate?

J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham 11:32

I mean, one of the things that I think is really interesting is that, you know, when starting a business, credibility is something that you often have to fight for.

And I think coming from a space in academia, where you have, you know, demonstrated expertise by some letters tacked to the end of your name, there's a good amount of cachet there.

And that's, that's really interesting, because I didn't think that would matter as much. And it absolutely does.

I think, you know, I've been in the position of acting as a department chair, and like most of us in who've done kind of full time, faculty appointments, have to navigate colleagues, navigate administration.

And I found that the complexities of navigating those spaces provided me with an extraordinarily great head start to doing client work, and to be honest, client work is a lot easier in comparison to navigating personalities in academia.

So I think the kind of politics of navigating academia are helpful in that regard, for sure.

And I would say what we do in those academic positions is maybe...I think multitasking is too mild a word to describe it, right?

We simultaneously do a lot, and a lot of things of consequence, whether that's, you know, prepping courses, and building curriculum, and maintaining our research programs, right?

Doing all these things at the same time. And I think, right now, I've certainly reproduced quite a bit of that, right, as far as carrying a lot of projects of consequence at the same time, and that that was extraordinarily helpful.

Adam Levy 13:13

What, then, are the biggest challenges, the things that you've felt like you've had to learn from scratch?

J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham 13:19

I left my academic post right before I was going to go up for tenure, actually.

And I think in the academic space I still very much looked at myself as early career, as a junior faculty.

And kind of jumping out of that, I realized that my contemporaries who are my age, we're in upper management, or we're CEOs, right? Getting used to that is really tough.

Because it does give you a sense that maybe you've lost time. And that's maybe more unsettling than you realize. You know, academia is a place where you are structurally acclimated to an environment where proving your worth is one of your central activities, right?

And I think because of that, particularly because I'm, you know, I'm female, and, you know, not only female, but an African American woman, you know, my experience of academia was one of just constantly fighting for my legitimacy.

And I realized that I walked into a broader space in industry where it was simply not that cut-throat.

I recognized that I carried around a lot of imposter syndrome, a lot of self-doubt, that was like habituated because of my time in academia.

So I think one of the biggest challenges was to be honest, putting that aside and kind of getting out of my own head.

Adam Levy 14:44

Do you have any tips for people who who are thinking about making the same leap from academia?

J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham 14:50

Yeah, I would say if you come from the humanities and social sciences like me, practicing things in like 25% of the words that you normally say things in.

We are accustomed to a balance where context and detail carry a lot of weight.

You know, people really just want "What is the actionable nugget? I don't need necessarily the the context or the backstory."

And to be honest you know, I said this to one of my former colleagues, I think the biggest thing is probably, really lean into understanding what your worth is as a thinker, as a scholar, as a researcher.

I think in the academic space, everybody has our set of skills, right?

Everybody knows how to run certain amounts of research. Everybody knows how to do analysis, right?

But in the world outside of academia, some of our our skills are damn near magic for other people, right?

Adam Levy 15:52

This might be a difficult question to answer. But do you feel like if you could rewind, you would do it slightly differently?

J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham 15:59

Oh yeah, I wouldn't do it differently, which is, I think, for a lot of people hearing that, might be an absolutely insane thing to hear.

Because, you know, it was a significant portion of my life.

But I also think that it's what shaped me and gave me both the ability and the wherewithal to do the work that I'm doing now, which is work that I feel I was meant to do.

And I don't believe I would have arrived there had I not done the detour through academia.

Adam Levy 16:30

Now your academic background is in social science. How has that specifically served you in your work in the more business world?

J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham 16:39

Certainly, now that I live it, you know, live in the world of private industry, and I'm talking to people about ideas like anti-racism and anti essentialism and cultural shift.

You know, not only do I think that my academic background is helpful, but I think ultimately what I'm doing is is, you know, doing a tiny bit of work to shift the ways that people think.

So that they understand that ideas that deal with culture and with meaning are valuable, not only for just existing, but for for making positive change.

Adam Levy 17:20

That was J. Jackson-Beckham. And that's the last interview for this podcast series, where we've aimed to cover the essentials of commercializing your research.

Of course, there is so much we haven't been able to cover in these six episodes.

And so if you want to find out plenty more about the career world of academia and business, then do head over to, and make sure you stay tuned for the next series from Nature's Working Scientist.

In September, reporter Julie Gould will be taking a look at an invaluable addition to an academic career, mentoring.

Until then, thanks a lot for listening. I'm Adam Levy.


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