Graduate students and postdocs are often best placed to turn basic research into entrepreneurial gold, argues Peter Fiske.
Until recently, entrepreneurship was relatively unheard of as a career path for graduate students and postdocs. Early-stage researchers were expected to remain in the laboratory, where producing results and publications was their priority. If the resultant technology had commercial potential, it was their supervisor who disclosed the invention to the university to patent and license, or left the university to start a company themselves. However, the traditional model for technology commercialization and entrepreneurship in universities is flawed in two ways. First, universities find that simply licensing patents to private companies yields poor results: either the licence fee is too high for the company, or the business is ill-equipped to fill the technological gap between the idea and its commercial success. Even the 1980 Bayh–Dole Act in the United States, which provided laws to facilitate commercialization, didn't help to generate the incentive and the tools needed.
Second, supervisors are not the best people to start companies; they already have a job and do not have the time needed to start up a business. Although some principal investigators have an extraordinary track record of developing innovative technologies into thriving commercial businesses, the motivation for many is tempered by the reality that to embark on a risky entrepreneurial venture would come at the expense of an academic career.
However, that is not the case for early-stage researchers. Although they too may be unfamiliar with the process of starting up a company, they have a powerful incentive: they need a job. Young scientists should recognize the big contribution that they can make in spearheading the entrepreneurial process, and principal investigators should recognize the part that their postdocs and graduate students can play.
Taking the lead
Early-stage researchers are at the centre of a new model of technology commercialization and entrepreneurship that is emerging across the United States; they are the ones who are developing business plans and starting companies. This role reversal makes sense. Graduate students and postdocs are in the lab actually doing the experiments that could lead to a new technology, so they often have the best insight into the details of the invention and what is needed to improve it. Unlike principal investigators, who have to split their time and attention across numerous research projects and staff, early-stage researchers can focus all of their time and attention on one project. This single-minded focus is crucial for nurturing an invention. Rather than being just a pair of hands in the lab, graduate students and postdocs are now directing the commercialization effort, with the principal investigator taking on an advisory role.
As well as being familiar with the technology, graduate students and postdocs are often highly motivated, extremely resourceful and adaptable — all perfect attributes for being successful in a small, emerging entrepreneurial venture. No wonder they make the perfect 'number one' at a start-up.
This is not to say that supervisors no longer have an important role. The principal investigator's name is often attached to an innovative piece of technology that has been developed in their lab. In many cases, this is entirely appropriate because the principal investigator may have had the initial idea. And having a well-known name associated with the technology can be an advantage for a start-up company trying to secure investment.
Early-stage scientists have more start-up help at their disposal than ever before. Some of the leading research universities are recognizing the realities of this new model of technology commercialization, and are starting to put into place an innovation ecosystem — a term often used by universities and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia to describe the system needed to support an environment conducive to business growth. A space to cultivate ideas and meet with outside investors and customers close to campus is crucial for teams in the early stage of technology development. On-campus programmes to introduce the basics of venture creation for scientists and engineers can help those closest to the bench to evaluate the commercial potential of their work, to better orient themselves to the start-up process and to identify key resources, such as funding, on and off campus.
Even funding agencies are waking up to the need to foster an innovation ecosystem to promote the commercialization of academic inventions. Last year, the NSF announced its Innovation Corps, which helps those funded by the foundation to determine the commercial potential of their research. Many funding agencies now ask those applying for grants to explain how their proposed research could be applied to real-world problems. This focus means that graduate students and postdocs have not only the opportunity, but in some cases also the resources, to embark on an entrepreneurial venture.
There is still a long way to go to motivate young scientists to become entrepreneurs. Working in a lab means that graduate students and postdocs are rarely exposed to the practicalities of running a business, and there is still a widespread belief in academia that technology commercialization is a distraction from true scientific research.
Young scientists should make sure that they are in the best position to take advantage of an increasing number of opportunities by keeping in mind the practical applications that may stem from their own research. Seeking out or, better yet, developing their own workshops and seminars on technology commercialization — which is already happening at institutes such as Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and the University of California, Berkeley — can help young scientists to understand the practical issues associated with venture creation.
Building a professional network outside the halls of academia, including colleagues in industry and start-up-company investors, will provide early-stage scientists with the crucial resources they will need to draw on, should they find themselves with an entrepreneurial opportunity. Bringing together economic interests and academic pursuits will almost certainly create new challenges. But this can only increase the potential career prospects of a young scientist pursuing a PhD or postdoc.
Related links in Nature Research
Innovation: The big idea of technology transfer
Start-ups: In search of venture capital
Women in business: Finding a way in
Related external links
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Fiske, P. Enterprising science. Nature 485, 269–270 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7397-269a