Biotech 🦠, startups 🚀, tech 👨‍💻

Maybe you should hire yourself?

As a final year PhD student there is a question Ihear a lot “So what are you doing after?”. The majority of answers I hear are either “I don’t know” or “Hmmm maybe a post-doc?”. And I think these are perfectly acceptable answers. However I think a more important question is “What are you passionate about?” as this shifts the focus from just getting a job, to finding a calling that will satisfy you.

In my opinion you should seek a position that will allow you to achieve your long term goals. Think about where you could work that would best implement your and experience and skills to maximum effect on obtaining that shared goal. Where will your skill set be most leveraged? If there isn’t a company already out here that you could align yourself with to achieve your goal it might just be time to do it yourself.

Over the past year I have been running a small microfluidics business and helping to develop the entrepreneurship scene at Imperial College London through the Imperial Create Lab. So I have a bit of experience of what goes into trying to start and run a business whilst you are studying and I’d like to share my thoughts.

##The timing will never be perfect just do it now

Starting a company sounds scary, but then again so does the prospect of doing a PhD. But you never deliver on the final objective in one go. Much like a PhD project, the building and running of a company is broken down into manageable chunks, where your efforts are focussed to reach certain mile stones and then you move on to the next stage. Sure it’s tough but everything, worth doing is.

Starting a company is a little different now. Things are done a ‘lean’ way where risk to capital and time wasting is minimised through formulation of particular assumptions about a business model and assessment of these assumptions by performing rigorous experiments, sound familiar? It should, this is the scientific method applied to running a startup.

As a student you are time poor, however you are surrounded by abundant talent and resources. So you have

The first objective is to identify an appealing product-market fit. There are so many great resources for this so I won’t go over it in too much detail, however the objective is to have your technology developed enough to that it provides value to the customer. Once this value proposition is a established potential customers need to be consulted on your value proposition. Assimilate what you learn from these people and refine your technology and value proposition.

Ultimately if you have solved something no one is willing to pay for it is time to move on to your next idea. By speaking to the customer early and often you can establish that someone won’t pay you for your product before you go ahead and order a few shipping container-fulls! When you bounce your idea off of the market it allows you to better create a solution to a problem from your technology that you have developed.

##Why scientists have the makings of great entrepreneurs

There are two reasons I think scientists make great entrepreneurs. Firstly we are well experienced in dealing with failure. It is very rare that your first business will be your most successful one just like how you’ll never nail your first experiment. We understand that there is a cycle of refinement that processes must go through to be the best they can.

Secondly I feel scientists understand the temporary role that assumptions fulfil. Assumptions are critical to make progress however at some point these need to be tested. Business models rely on assumptions like who the potential customer segments will be, at some point this needs to be tested. People need to be spoken to and data needs to be collected to change that assumption into fact. Once all your business model assumptions have been tested you will have a robust business model that puts you in a favourable position to build a successful company and will also look great if you ever wish to pursue investment.

##Impact. People. Challenge. Why start ups are amazing Some of the biggest change agents in our time are companies, not governments and it seems that the best way to change the world is to do it through business. You can’t just start a government to bring about change however you can just start a business.

For me the most exciting thing about start ups are the people. There is something about building a business that attracts visionary people with huge amounts of drive and these qualities are infectious.

From what I have observed helping students start companies is that you get a coming together of some extremely passionate and intelligent people who want to solve a problem or bring delight to people around the world. They see something that annoys them and try and fix it and a startup allows them to solve that problem for everyone else as well.

There is no comfort zone. In a startup you will be constantly pushed to do things you haven’t done before and you will make mistakes but you will learn and grow. It is such a fantastic challenge. Balancing the early stages of a start up is a challenge whilst doing a PhD but the type of skills you will be exercising are a fantastic complement to your usual day to day research.

There is nothing more rewarding than assembling a team to work solely on brining a concept to the market to change the world.

##Why university is a great place to build a start up.

The awesome thing about creating a start up at university is the quantity of accessible resources around you. James Taylor who occasionally writes for the Nature Biotechnology blog coined the term ‘The Leverage Startup’. Which is essentially a startup that massively leverages academic resources to minimise risk. I myself have used and I also encourage other students to make the most of:

  • R&D infrastructure
  • Technical Expertise
  • Commercialization resources such as tech transfer offices
  • Non-dilutive funding sources such as government grants
  • Student Entrepreneurship competitions
  • and in some cases pretty favourable intellectual property rights for the student.

From an external point of view these resources usually come with an extremely high price tag, however internally you can speak to a knowledgable academic for the price of a coffee and friendly email. Non-dilutive funding is a great way to advance your product without having to give away any of your equity.

##Work on side projects with new people

In my experience the pursuit of a PhD feels like an all consuming experience and it can often lead to opportunities being over looked if they don’t link in to the work that you’re doing. I wanted to address this in my PhD so I embarked to try and imbue spirit of Google 20% into my PhD. At Google, employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their time utilising their skill set in a side project. Often at Google these projects are advertised on an internal bulletin board and teams can form around projects.

Early on I worked on a 20% time project related to polymerisation and since then helping out with the Imperial Create Lab became my main 20% time endeavour. Working on these side projects can enrich your time at university allowing you to get a flavour for different kinds of work and interacting with people from different sectors which can potentially end up with you making a connection with someone who can aid in your search for (self) employment.

##What now?

Go out and find kindred spirits, other people who want to fix the world. Even if you don’t want to fix the same problem being involved in a community of people with the drive and desire to build and create things is fantastic support. You will be able to share common skills like how to distribute equity or conduct constructive customer interviews. And more importantly you can share your networks to make connections where you need them.

There are already great communities out there however London is a little more spoilt for choice than the rest of the UK. is a great place to start to find people with similar interests in building companies however if you can’t find the community you are not alone, be the one to go out there and start it, be the nucleus that all of these amazing people can form around. You can do it.

  • Reach out to community or build one!
  • Build a network of people who are driven, and want to make a difference.
  • Find people who align with your vision and ask them to join you on your mission to change a part of the world.
  • Leverage the resources in your institution to minimise risk and gain a competitive advantage.
  • These early stages can be done in your 20% time.

##Final thoughts and a bit on if it doesn’t work out.

The big take-away here is that it’s not a big deal to start a company. The key is to minimise risk early on by first speaking to potential customers, and leveraging resources around you in the academic environment. Coalesce a passionate team around the problem you want to solve, and work together developing a great product-market fit where people will actually pay for the technology you are working on.

If ultimately the start up never takes off, or you work tirelessly to build a product and ultimate the company has to wrap up, it doesn’t matter. Think back to your PhD days and how every failed experiment helped you improve yourself and your work. Get back on the horse and solve another problem, and wear your badge of experience with pride.