Transitions Part Four: Making Money

Editor's Note: This is the fourth article in our series "Transitions" where Stijn Oomes tells us about the lessons he learned about himself and how they helped him to make decisions for his future career. In the preceding article Stijn decided to become a high-tech entrepreneur. Today Stijn is exploring how he can turn his research concepts into cash.

It has been quite an adventurous year, to say the least. Last summer I resigned from my postdoc in the United States and moved back to the Netherlands to become an independent researcher and entrepreneur. But having finally achieved my much desired independence, I had to start making some money. My savings could help sustain me for at least 6 months. But more important has been the support of my friends and family. The moral support of my family was a given, but at a time when I could not find affordable housing, my parents did not hesitate to invite me to move back home temporarily. My friends have also been kind and helpful. I borrowed money from some of them, but none of them blinks while picking up the bill in a restaurant (I still cringe, but I will have the rest of our lives to return the favor). So, I will not die of starvation, and I have a roof over my head, but the rest is of course up to me. With my expertise as intellectual capital I decided on a dual strategy: to sell my knowledge as a consultant and to start building a high-tech company on the basis of my invention.

How can I make money with my expertise in human visual perception of the 3D world? I had to become a kind of private professor and give presentations and write articles. Not for science this time, but for money. I started translating my knowledge into applied domains. I have a long-standing interest in architecture and arranged to give a workshop at the Academy of Architecture in Maastricht. It turned out to be an interesting day in which I tried to debunk some of the prejudices that the students had about vision. One example is that they all believed in the "golden section" principle that states that there are special proportions in a visual scene that are perceived as more beautiful than other proportions. Experimental research has shown that this idea simply does not hold.

Another domain in which I could contribute is scientific and medical visualization. Because 3D computer graphics are very cheap and easily available these days, a lot of people think that by simply showing a molecule in 3D, our chemical understanding will automatically increase. But as I explained to my audience, it very much depends on the goal of the visualization. The human visual system is very good at perceiving the overall shape of the structure but when it comes to making precise estimations of distances and angles, we usually fail and have to turn to other methods. A similar maxim holds for human-computer interaction; air-traffic controllers will make faster judgments and fewer mistakes when they are looking at a 2D display. Although a 3D scene looks more vivid, it makes it harder to judge the precise altitude of the planes and can introduce fatal mistakes. It has been fun talking to people in these fields, and it has exposed me to a lot of common misconceptions that have further benefited my consulting activities.

Meanwhile I have been laying the groundwork for a high-tech company. I was lucky to hear about a business plan competition that was about to start in the Netherlands. This competition, dubbed New Venture, had three rounds, with prizes and accompanying seminars in each. I attended most of the seminars and managed to win awards in the first and second rounds that brought in some cash. The last round involved writing a complete business plan, and I did not enter. Although I had strengthened my network considerably and succeeded in finding a few individuals that wanted to be involved in my business idea, I was trying to write a complete plan on my own. This was too much for me as it involves a lot of specialized knowledge that I do not possess yet.

Nonetheless, my start-up took a big leap forwards when the owner of an Internet company offered me free office space. We started discussing my plans and he gave me lots of valuable advice. One of the ironies is that I mentioned New Venture to him; he submitted one of his own plans for the third round and got an honorable mention. We are now talking about merging our plans by combining the strengths of both of them. We are also talking to a large number of people: developers, bankers, marketers, designers, etc. It looks like I have found the business partner that I need and I am confident we can launch soon.

In spite of all these good developments, I have reached the point where I need to critically evaluate my financial situation. I cannot rely on the goodwill of my family and friends forever, and my activities simply have not generated enough income for me to continue by this route alone. I have decided to look for a part-time position as a lecturer at a university. This will give me a base income that will allow me to continue my other ventures in the remaining time.

Look out for further installments of ?transitions? as Stijn?s story unfolds.

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