Sink or Swim: Riding the Dot-Com Wave

I'll begin by confessing that I started my Internet business, ScienceNeeds, with essentially no knowledge about either computers or business.

I completed my Ph.D. under the supervision of Richard Hill in the department of medical biophysics at the University of Toronto--a fabulous place to learn. I went into graduate school because of my intellectual interest in radiation biology and cancer research and also because I wanted to do something with the potential to help others. When I started my Ph.D., I intended to pursue an academic career. However, as I approached the end of my degree, this career choice had lost its appeal for me, principally because of the poor job market and harsh funding reality, particularly in Canada.

I decided to venture into the business world without having any idea of what that really meant and planned to start an MBA program in September of 1999. In the interim, a dear friend of mine whom I had met in graduate school lost her job. We started talking about Internet companies we could start together and had a great time thinking about lots of different possibilities. My friend suggested the idea of starting a business-to-business Web site for ordering laboratory research supplies. This was the strongest of the ideas we had come up with, far outweighing ones such as a fortune-telling Web site that would interpret scanned images of palms and possibly other body parts. My friend decided to take a job, but an entrepreneurial seed had been planted in me and after some consideration I decided to put my business school plans on hold and start an Internet business.

I had a small amount of savings that I used to support myself financially. Having recently finished graduate school, I was accustomed to a life of near poverty anyway. Much of my learning at the beginning was from books and Web sites. (I read widely and can't pinpoint one particular star resource but I will put a list of resources that I found useful up on for anyone who is interested.) I also benefited tremendously from knowledgeable friends and family. According to many of my sources, step one when looking for financing for a company is to write a business plan. Writing a business plan is, I found, in many ways like writing a thesis. You have your introduction, you have to include piles of research about the area you're working in, and you have to rewrite it approximately one million times! I was fortunate to have friends and contacts read the plan for me and make suggestions. During this period, I also incorporated my business ScienceNeeds Inc., for reasons which are lost in the mists of time--no, really, I made the decision after going through the pros and cons of various legal structures, something people should consider when starting a business.

With my business plan in hand, I began to start looking for financing. I quickly learned this is an incredibly time-consuming process. As eager as I was to get started on actually doing something with the company, as opposed to fiddling with the business plan and watching my future competitors, especially Chemdex and SciQuest, get bigger and bigger, I needed money to run the company. A few of my friends and colleagues had contacts in the financing industry and they generously passed on these names. I say generously both because it was very nice of them, and also because I was discovering that hardly anyone in the business crowd I was meeting is willing to give away any information without payment. This was a shock to me after having been in an environment of intellectual stimulation where ideas were discussed openly and people helped one another.

I was participating in the Toronto Internet business community at an exciting time. Networking events, in particular those connecting entrepreneurs, investors, and the service providers wanting to sell to either or both of them, were mushrooming. It seemed like one could go to a different networking event every day of the week and often even have to choose between different events being held on the same day. There was a real buzz of excitement in the air. That has changed dramatically over the past year. Many of the companies are gone and correspondingly many of the networking events no longer swell with people. One of the groups I became involved with was the Toronto chapter of DigitalEve, an organization for women working in technology. Although I admit I felt a bit uncomfortable about the segregation, I have met interesting women through DigitalEve. The Toronto Biotechnology Initiative, a nonprofit group committed to promoting the growth of biotechnology in Toronto and the surrounding region, was also a good resource for me, as many of its members float between the science and Internet/business communities.

Just as my meager savings were trickling to an end, I was successful in raising money. The sum I raised was huge, yet not enough for the grandiose business plan I had built. I looked on this initial sum of money as an aid to raising more money. Then came the crash in the technology stock market and a corresponding change in the mood of investors. Although I still looked for financing, I decided to start with what had been a small sideline of my original vision and build up the company from that. But soon after came shocking news--my biggest future competitor, Chemdex, announced it was closing its doors, taking a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars. Although this meant one less competitor, it was bad news because it signaled problems with the viability of business-to-business Web sites, such as the one I was working on.

I continued to work on the business-to-business part of the site for a while longer, but also began to put increasing amounts of effort into exploring and working on several other opportunities. For example, I have been spending more and more time working in partnership with VentureCluster, a company specializing in investment services and consulting for biotechnology and technology companies. Together we have been working on producing investment research reports on established biotech companies and also helping early stage companies raise money. I'm not sure what the future holds for me and for ScienceNeeds but it's been a great experience and I have learned a tremendous amount, about business in general, the Internet, technology, venture capital and financing, and, of course, about myself. To add a different perspective to this hands-on learning experience, I may still do an MBA but probably would go to school part-time rather than full-time.

What I do know is that I love working for myself. Granted, there are periods when a nice 9-to-5 job with no responsibilities when one leaves the office sounds hugely appealing! There are definite parallels between working as an entrepreneur in the business world and being a research scientist in an academic institution. Both carry a lot of responsibility, in particular for financing projects and making sure things get done, but also allow independence, flexibility, and overall freedom of choice. Also, it helps enormously to have the strong support of colleagues, friends, and family, as I have been so fortunate to have.

I wish you the best of luck in your career(s)!

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