Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Turning Dumb Luck Into Smart Luck

For most people, moving into an intellectually and financially rewarding post-postdoc life means finding a research job in academe or the private sector. A few postdocs, however, make their own jobs.

Entrepreneur Barry Narod credits "dumb luck" for the chance to turn his postdoc work into a thriving business with clients in 17 countries on four continents. Yet dumb luck, well-exploited, isn't dumb; or, as Narod puts it, if a person can "take advantage of dumb luck, it becomes smart luck." But, he warns, educating luck in this way requires an array of skills scientists don't often learn at a university.

Brazil or Antarctica or Nepal or Tuscany

More than 20 years after his lucky break, Narod is still in the job he created from his postdoc research, working out of his home office/workshop when he isn't off doing science in Brazil or Antarctica or Nepal or Tuscany. With more than 50 scientific publications and meeting presentations, an adjunct professorship, and a busy schedule of experimental work, he has spent 2 decades simultaneously "at the vanguard of a brand-new science" and at the helm of a small corporation lucrative enough to support overseas mountaineering trips and a handsome home in an upscale neighborhood. Full disclosure: He is also this reporter's cousin.

Narod's chance came unexpectedly. After his Ph.D. in geophysics and an unsatisfying stint with a petroleum company, he returned to academe in 1981 as a postdoc at his alma mater, the University of British Columbia (UBC). There his work centered on finding novel ways to measure magnetism. "We were trying all sorts of new and interesting things," he said. "I had graduate students I was supervising. I hired staff." Then his PI received a contract to "have a look at some NASA technology for Canadian applications." Narod, who has dual U.S. and Canadian citizenship, became involved in creating a new magnetometer.

In his third postdoc year, facing a dearth of faculty openings, he received an invitation to present the results of the work he'd been doing creating magnetometers at a conference at Brown University. There he met (the now-deceased) A. W. Green Jr. of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). To Green, the magnetometer Narod described "looks like something we could use," as Narod tells the story. Green then asked the young researcher to "see what you can do building us some prototypes for [USGS] applications," Narod recalls.

So Narod formed a corporation, negotiating a licensing agreement with UBC that allowed him to build the magnetometer in exchange for royalty payments to UBC over a period of years. Narod kept his day job, working on the USGS project only during his off hours. Green liked the result and asked Narod to build him another. And then another. Over the years, USGS has "bought a lot [of magnetometers], Narod says. "They're still buying."

Green also began mentioning the device in papers he presented. Other researchers started asking Narod for magnetometers for their applications. Narod continued to moonlight as a corporate president; eventually his university work fell "to 50%, then I dropped it to 20%, and then it went to zero." Within 3 years he was devoting all his working time to Narod Geophysics Ltd. and its constantly improving magnetometer.

Green's encouragement--and even more important, his money--were "key" to Narod's transition from trainee to entrepreneur. But encouragement and money aren't the whole story; it was equally essential that "I already had the business skills [in] international transactions, import-export, intellectual property, accounting principles, liability and tax, all those kinds of things. I'd already learned all that."

Ten years before meeting Green, Narod, then a college student, had enjoyed mountaineering with a group of friends. They had no convenient source of equipment, however. Trips to buy gear at Seattle's REI cooperative convinced them that they could do something similar to what REI was doing. "A small number of us got together and busted our asses for a little while to get incorporation and to find some source for goods to resell, a lot of it from REI." The Mountain Equipment Co-op the group founded now has stores across Canada. And the "years of learning experience" that it provided Narod "took away a lot of [his] fear" at starting his own corporation.

A second key to the magnetometer business's success was Narod's array of other skills useful in running his corporation: "machine shop skills, computer skills, writing skills. I'm [also] a filmmaker, so I know how to put together promotional materials. I'd done all that stuff before I ever started" selling magnetometers.

"There's no substitute for getting dirty in the details"

Would-be business owners should cultivate as many skills as possible, Narod believes, because "you can't afford to buy them when you're starting" and partners "take all the profit." He advises anyone considering entrepreneurship to grab every opportunity to get experience and mentoring in business. "One quite mundane thing ... I had to do was to learn double-entry bookkeeping. There's no substitute for getting dirty in the details." He has since also used his know-how to help a friend set up his own company and "make geophysical instrumentation and sell it to his particular niche market."

Another key to success was the utility of Narod's product, which met scientific needs that he himself did not fully appreciate at the outset. Researchers in a number of fields heard about the device and realized it could help advance their work. Spreading the word among scientists is rather like planting a garden. "You do have to make it your business to go and tell everyone about" your product, and then you have to wait for their ideas about new applications to sprout. In science, "you can't push an idea; it has to be pulled by the client." NASA, the Department of Energy, the U.S. Navy, the University of Washington, Stanford University, Boston University, and the Natural Environment Research Council, a European research collaborative, are among the many organizations and institutions that have come to him for magnetometers.

High quality and continuous product improvement, notes Narod, are also essential for success. Today's Narod magnetometer is so different from the one he first built for Green that he has not paid royalties to UBC in well over a decade. These improvements have taken constant work. Every scientific entrepreneur has to "get [his or her] hands dirty," Narod says. "It's not just a matter of throwing [something] together and seeing if it works. You have to start from the science and work it through in all its gory details. ... You have to have the theory, too; you have to have it all." "If you've got a good idea ... and there is a demand ... it'll launch," Narod notes. But, he warns, "whether or not it becomes economically viable is a political decision [made by customers], not a technical decision" made by the seller.

Narod's company has stayed small because his market niche is highly specialized. "The usual [business] model is that you ... invent something at a university and a venture capitalist comes along and says, 'I want to make that happen.' I'm not big enough to interest venture capitalists." He has never had investors and he regularly employs only one other person. "I outsource a lot of stuff as well," he notes, enough to add up to three to four full-time positions. He expects to sell the business when he retires.

The challenges--and the frustrations--of running a small scientific business can be very large, however. Working alone "creates isolation," he says. Although "the income stream is fine, the technical stream is the hard one: keeping the production going, keeping the science current," and dealing with such problems as parts, procurement, and obsolescence.

But through all the hassles, entrepreneurship has allowed this former postdoc to achieve major goals, both personal and scientific. Narod has managed to make a good life for himself and a real contribution to science without obtaining the oft-obligatory faculty job. Together with his clients he has attained "measurements that have never been done before, scientific results that have never been considered before."

"That's where the really fun part is, the science."

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