Transitions Part Three: Science or Technology?

In our " Transitions" series, Stijn Oomes tells us about the lessons he learned about himself and how they helped him to make decisions regarding his career. Today, Stijn finds himself needing to decide between science and technology. More specifically, he wonders if a postdoc should become an entrepreneur.

My first invention was a failure. Convinced something needed to be done about vehicle pollution, I came up with a new kind of car engine. I called it Dymo, and it was basically a motor that was powered by a dynamo that was driven by the motor. Of course this is a classic example of a perpetual motion machine and obviously could never work. However, it took me some time to grasp the physical principles behind this failure. I even ended up writing my master?s thesis on a topic in thermodynamics, the science that describes the principles behind this impossibility. Did I mention that I was 7 years old when I invented Dymo?

Failure though it was, Dymo is an example of the interaction between science and technology. The goal of science is to understand phenomena in our world, whereas technology aims to build systems that are in some way useful for us. These systems can in turn help scientists understand the world. Just imagine astronomy without telescopes and it is clear that science would be helpless without technology. The reverse is also true in that scientific understanding can provide the basic knowledge to build novel systems. Without quantum mechanics, the people at Bell Labs would probably not have invented the transistor. Just imagine how different our world would have been.

These thoughts crossed my mind when I was in the second year of my postdoc at Ohio State University (OSU) and was trying to make up my mind about my next step. Although I was on track to pursue an academic career, I did not want to exclude the possibility of doing technological research. While at MIT I had seen the excitement that is generated by the interaction between scientific, technological, and also entrepreneurial endeavors. The fact that the academic job market was not very welcoming, both in the United States and in Europe, convinced me to explore this option more seriously. But what really tipped the balance was my growing conviction that I could turn one of my scientific ideas into a technology. I started developing the system in my spare time while also looking for jobs in R&D.

I approached a researcher of a big European electronics company for an informational interview during the upcoming Christmas break. He was most forthcoming and invited me to come and visit and introduced me to several colleagues. Back in the U.S., I decided to submit an open application for a research position in that company. After the official interviews (where the panel included a person I had met during the informational interviews!), they made me a formal offer. The problem, however, was that they wanted me to fill a particular position while I wanted to work on my invention.

In retrospect, my mistake was that I had not communicated my intensions clearly enough. I had argued that although I was capable and willing to fill the open position, I would prefer to work on my own ideas. Once again I was confronted with my deep-rooted desire to be independent in my research. The negotiations ended with me turning down the offer.

But no experience is ever wasted. I came away from it with the conviction that I really wanted to work on my own ideas, and nothing else. And preferably somewhere in Europe. My trip back home had convinced me that my family and friends were more important to me than I had realized. Their positive response to the possibility of my return made me think long and hard about the balance between my social and professional life. I had enjoyed my time in the U.S., but I had never become a real part of the social structure. Without a clear plan, I made the decision to move back to the Netherlands and informed my advisor at OSU of my resignation.

A week later I got an e-mail out of the blue from a headhunter who was recruiting for an international consulting firm. One of the firm?s research labs turned out to be located in the South of France! After a successful phone interview, they flew me over for a full day of interviews. At the end of the day, the head of research made me an informal offer: total freedom in my research and a salary that sounded exorbitantly high to my academic ears. There was only one catch: They did not know their budget for the next fiscal year. Partly due to global economic circumstances they could not formalize their offer and my Mediterranean dreams were shattered. Back to plan A.

So, at the beginning of summer 2001 I said farewell to my colleagues and friends at OSU and moved back to my home country. I settled in Amsterdam and founded my research and consulting company Eccentric Vision. Now I was free to pursue my ideas and discover whether my invention would work. Although it might turn out to be another failure, I am tremendously enjoying the process of finding out.

Editor?s Note: In the next article in this series, Oomes will describe his struggles to finance his newly achieved independence.

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