Learning to Think Like An Entrepreneur, Part Two

In my last Next Wave column, I introduced the topic of entrepreneurism and described how there is a lot of common ground between scientists and entrepreneurs. My point was that you don't have to leave the lab, or even academia, to understand and contribute to the entrepreneurial side of science. And yet, if you ask most grad students or postdocs to describe an entrepreneur, most of them will tell you about the one scientist who left the lab a few years ago with a commercial idea and who is still living on the edge.

Yes, there are many examples of entrepreneurs in the world of industry who started life as academic scientists and who continue to face the challenges of getting their ideas turned into businesses. Some entrepreneurs will be successful, and probably more of them will not be. It is my long-held belief, however, that if you study the traits of these entrepreneurs, you will not only be ready to act like one when the time comes, but you will also better understand how to work with the entrepreneurial breed. (This ability will come in very handy in the biotechnology industry.)

In "Tooling Up," we try to provide you with ideas to take away from Next Wave that will help you move toward your career goals. Let this discussion about entrepreneurs open your mind to the possibility that you might have some of these traits yourself!

The Entrepreneur in Academia: Getting Value Out of Failure

In the early 1990s, Wen Y. Chen was conducting his research at the Edison Biotechnology Institute at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Chen, a Chinese M.D. who came to this country to pursue his Ph.D., had been working with his adviser, John Kopchick (see Part One of this two-part column) on a growth hormone for cattle.

"Beef producers had a great interest at that time in enhancing the size of their beef cows. Any inexpensive hormone that they could inject and get an increase in the size of their animal was of strong commercial value," describes Chen. "My adviser and I were studying this for my graduate work. The problem was that my experiments were a great failure, and the animals we were studying didn't take on any added growth at all." Although many scientists would have been discouraged by this and perhaps moved to more fertile ground, Chen and Kopchick looked closer at the results and asked the "What if?" question that is so often on the mind of the inventor/entrepreneur.

"We noticed that while there was a distinct lack of success with the growth hormone, there were some strange oddities--dwarf animals consistently showing up in the results," says Chen. He went on to describe how he and his adviser asked themselves if perhaps there was a mutant being produced that was actually a growth hormone antagonist. Sure enough, that was the case.

Looking at this technology 6 years later, it is my guess that nothing would have happened if Chen and Kopchick did not have working entrepreneurial antennae. Further evidence of this is the way that their commercial business eventually developed.

"For some reason, coincidences started occurring that were in favor of this moving forward. At an alumni weekend, one alumnus who had a pharmaceutical background came by, and a casual discussion of my work turned interesting to him. He had just sold his business and was looking for an idea to reinvest in." The coincidences continued: A later ski trip in which his adviser and this same fellow met informally then set the stage for the development of a new company, Sensus Drug Development Corp. And to anyone who follows the start-up biotech business, Sensus is one company to watch. (An IPO is scheduled for later this year.)

How does Chen plan to continue in his career? He's chosen to remain an entrepreneur in academic science, where he has a dual appointment as an assistant professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. (He also serves as the assistant director of the Oncology Research Institute of the Greenville Hospital system.) Chen's lesson in entrepreneurship to pass along: "Be willing to look at obstacles from different angles, and then use that natural grad student's persistence and perspiration to advance something that you believe in."

The Entrepreneur in Industry: Getting Away From the Bench

Tony Martin is one of the most dynamic entrepreneurs I know; he is also one of the key players behind several U.K. success stories in biotech. For anyone who has ever had feelings about breaking away from bench science and moving toward business, Tony's background is worth a close study.

After he received a Ph.D. in immunology in the late 1970s, Martin made a decision "out of pure pragmatism--I needed to feed and clothe a young family"--to leave academia and move into industry. Although he had been offered a lectureship at Leeds University in biochemistry, he chose instead to take a position in product development in the U.K. research labs of Procter and Gamble. Within a short period of time, he had moved up the ladder to manage the formulation and development of new dishwashing liquids, soaps, and detergents. But despite his new prosperity, there was something missing.

"I was after all a life scientist, and I needed to get into work that would be more in line with my real love--into product categories like biochemistry and molecular biology," says Martin. It was this goal that drove him into what would be his first opportunity to be an entrepreneur, a position at Amersham International in product management.

"Product management is an ideal job for a scientist-entrepreneur," he says. "It combines a strong technical involvement along with a business that you literally run as your own. The training I had there was fantastic. I had the opportunity to do extensive travel, setting up collaborations and licensing agreements with some of the top biological scientists in the world." After several years of collaborating with institutions like Stanford University and a stint in the United States, Tony made a decision that changed his life. He took the risk of going with a start-up firm called British Biotechnology, the first biotech company in Britain.

"I was intrigued by the prospect of working for Dr. Keith McCullagh, one of the real gurus of biotechnology here in the U.K., and I liked the pace and the culture of the young firm," Tony says. As it turns out, McCullagh proved a terrific mentor for Martin in this change to the biotech environment. He flourished and within a short time was running one of the company's spin-off businesses, which generated £15 million to £20 million turnover in the research products sector. He was so successful that he had taken a company with a £2 million valuation and brought it up to £60 million within a short period of time. Needless to say, his investors were happy.

Since then, this immunologist-turned-entrepreneur has been behind the scenes of several successes. As a consultant, board member, or CEO, he's been involved with Invitrogen, Celsis International, AZUR Environmental, and a new start-up biotech company by the name of Neutec Pharma in Manchester, U.K.

Tony's lesson in entrepreneurship to pass along: "I've learned through my transition to industry that you must have a mentor on this side of the fence just as you had in academia. There's a huge difference in the requirements of work, and a mentor can help you understand how that new world really operates."

In Closure

My recommendations throughout this regular series of Tooling Up columns here on Next Wave have always been to study "Other People's Experiences" carefully. These O.P.E.s can be one of the easiest and most fascinating ways to prepare for your own career moves. In this case, I hope that the lessons learned by earlier entrepreneurs can assist you as you gather data and make your own decisions about the environment in which you may want to foster your own entrepreneurial leanings.

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