Towards the end of my PhD study, it became clear to me that I want to pursue a career outside of academia. This was largely due to the recent crisis on research funding in Canada. I started exploring various job opportunities that are known to be available to life sciences PhD graduates, including Medical Science Liaisons, Regulatory Affairs, Clinical Research Associates, and Management Consulting. However, like the very nature of scientific discovery itself, I stumbled upon a career path that I never expected: entrepreneurship.
I joined BenchSci in early 2016 as the Community Architect to serve as the liaison between BenchSci and the biomedical research community. Since working in the start-up environment, I have noticed several surprising similarities between starting a company and completing a PhD thesis. Here, I would like to share what I’ve learned with fellow PhD candidates who are exploring entrepreneurship as one of their career paths.
1. Start with background research
What is the first thing every PhD student must do when they start in the lab? A comprehensive literature research. You need to know the key research findings, the latest techniques, and the leading labs in the field, in order to design your experiments and establish collaborations.
The same background research is also required when you’re starting a company. You need to study market reports to learn the current trends, size, needs, as well as the leaders and competitors within the target market. This information helps contextualize your product-market fit and helps build a strong business case that is viable in the face of competitions.
2.You are trying to solve a problem
Cancer, diabetes, depression, hypertension, you name it. Every biomedical researcher has their own favourite disease they are working hard to treat or cure (Alzheimer’s is my personal favourite). These diseases are the “problems” we are trying to solve in the lab.
Similarly, the products and services offered by start-up companies were created to address specific problems. These problems may also be diseases (medical device/software companies), or information overload (BenchSci), or simply the lack of a means to express your thoughts (check out our friends at Wattpad). Like blockbuster drugs, a successful company is built upon addressing a problem with a vast unmet need for a solution.
3. There are (a lot of) trial-and-errors
I cannot remember how many times I yelled at my rats, “It doesn’t work!” over the course of my PhD study. As many of you have experienced first-hand, the majority of biomedical research revolves around: experiment, negative or no result, troubleshoot and revise, experiment…and the cycle goes on until that one experiment that yields publishable data.
The same trial-and-error process also applies to product developments in start-ups. For example, the current BenchSci platform is the result of countless beta testing with scientists followed by numerous revisions. Even so, we are certain that there are still aspects to be refined. The persistency in finding and fixing problems is what it takes to create a product or service that will satisfy the need of the market. It’s an ongoing process.
4. You need to defend your ideas
So you have grinded through those long nights and weekends in the lab and published your papers. Now only one thing stands between you and the prestigious degree: the senate defense. Arguably one of the most stressful hours of your life, you will defend 5-7 years of hard work in front of a board of experts in your field. The value of a PhD degree is beyond your performance of experiments, but also proving that you can articulate your logic in a coherent narrative, backed up by facts, to address those who question you.
Over the course of the start-up journey, you will also inevitably face potential investors who question your ideas and the value of your company, particularly in the early stage. You need to be able to hold your ground. After all, the company would not exist without those who firmly believe in it. At times, the questioning by others can turn into a positive! Often those with the most questions contribute to valuable feedback to improve the company, or can even be the ones who end up investing. Therefore, it is imperative that you are able to address their concerns and questions clearly with market research data and customer feedback.
5. Network, network, network
Although scientists are stereotypically labelled as being introverted, the labs that perform well are often the ones with a wide network of collaborations
In order to grow your company, you also need to build relationships with different stakeholders, be it investors, customers, collaborators, or other start-up companies. Each person you talk to is an opportunity, and these opportunities only come from constant networking.
In sum, entrepreneurship is an often overlooked career opportunity for PhD candidates, yet one that is interesting, valuable, and in some cases, may actually be a better fit than other positions.
I want to stress that not all PhD candidates will be successful entrepreneurs or make great additions to start-up companies. Rather, my intent is to help them recognize that they have developed valuable skillsets (autonomy, adaptability, and resilience) over their PhD training that can transfer into other spheres, including entrepreneurship.
For those who are interested in getting hands-on experience in the start-up environment, BenchSci has a Liaison Program, and we would love to hear from you.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.