MentorDoctor: The Next Big Thing?

Dear MentorDoctor:

I plan to complete my master's degree in chemical engineering in the summer of 2007. My adviser and other committee members have urged me to continue my studies and work toward a doctorate after I graduate. But I have a few good scientific ideas that I think I can use to start a small business. I didn't plan on being an entrepreneur, but my training has opened up a whole new world for me. Should I take a gamble and work toward being my own boss or take the safe route of academia?


Ready to Roll the Dice

Mark Castanares, Graduate Student
Department of Pharmacology
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Mark Castanares: This is a very tough decision, but many people have to choose which route to take, academia vs. industry. It is a big gamble to start your own business. You take the chance of losing your shirt, but you may get lucky and become successful. If I were you, I would take the safe route and continue in academia. I believe the experience you gain while pursuing a doctorate degree will help you refine your ideas and make them better. Your ideas are not going anywhere, and you may even be able to pursue one of them while pursuing your degree.

Just think, if you have these great ideas now, who knows how many ideas you will have after more training and experience? Keep in mind, however, that after you receive your doctorate, you will once again have to choose which route to take, but statistically you've improved your chances of commanding a higher salary in whatever you decide to do. Good luck.

Isabella Finkelstein, Ph.D.
Professor of Biological Sciences
Department of Biological Sciences
Clark Atlanta University

Isabella Finkelstein: Since you will be finishing your master’s degree in the summer of 2007, you have a few months to contemplate your decision. Nevertheless, I must side with your adviser and committee members. Since they are encouraging you to continue, you must be a good student with research potential. You have plenty of time to take a gamble after you have completed the Ph.D.

Remember that it takes more than a good idea to start a business, not the least of which is capital. I would suggest that you investigate Ph.D. programs that combine translational research and small business incubator components. They do exist. I also know Ph.D.s that combined an MBA with the Ph.D. Some business background with advanced research training should enhance your chance of success. Just think--if you have a few good ideas with your M.S. degree, pursuing the Ph.D. should give you additional ideas.

We hear about entrepreneurs who get wealthy with a new idea that is revolutionary, but we rarely hear of those that have good ideas that are not successful. Remember, at this point, you have the opportunity to continue your training; do not think of it as a safe route, but one that will better prepare you to be an entrepreneur. Good luck.

Thomas Landefeld, Ph.D.
Professor of Biology
College of Natural and Behavioral Sciences
California State University-Dominguez Hills

Thomas Landefeld: This is just the first of many tough decisions that you will have to make regarding your career, and the best piece of advice is to make the decision using a combination of "being well informed" and "feelings from the heart." If you really believe in yourself and your ideas, then starting a small business may be the best bet. Certainly, academia is no longer a "safe route," based on time to tenured position, availability of research funding, and in general, a lack of security (until tenure). I am sure that many scientists wish that they had the option of starting their own business.

Don’t get me wrong; there are still many advantages to an academic career; however, there is a gamble associated with that just as there is in starting a business. Once you have looked at all the relevant information, making a decision based on what your heart tells you may be your best route. Having good scientific ideas is the strength that you possess, regardless of which route that you take. Just be sure to consider the pluses and minuses of both routes and then go for it! Good luck.

The GrantDoctor: Why choose? Clearly, the business idea you have in mind is science-related. Presumably, it's also related to your training. Universities often offer strong support for the entrepreneurial activities of their faculty and students (if yours doesn't, find one that does). Business experience and expertise can be valuable, but in my view, it's not essential. None of that is rocket science; the main things you need are a good idea, a lot of determination, the ability to solve problems--lots of them--and capital. But you're also likely to need some scientific resources--lab space, reagents, support staff--and in the early stages of developing a business, an academic environment can be just the thing. This assumes of course that your advisers are friendly to the idea.

Keep in mind that there are some intellectual property issues that need to be addressed. Assuming that you had these ideas while you were a master's student, your university--and your adviser--might have a right to some portion of the intellectual property. You might not have the freedom to go off and form your own business without the blessings of the institution and your adviser.

There's a lot here to consider, but I think the best approach would be for you to stay in graduate school, convince your adviser that your idea is worth pursuing in the private sector, utilize your university's supports (tech-transfer office, etc.) and develop your new company as an academic spinoff. You might be able to patent the new technology and then license it to an existing company--a relatively cheap approach. But there are all sorts of reasons why this plan--or any other plan--may not work. It all depends on the nature of the idea (and of the business you want to create), your relationship with your advisers and others in your scientific orbit, and who owns the intellectual property. It could be complicated, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth pursuing.

Do you have questions for MiSciNet's MentorDoctor team? Please send inquiries to MiSciNet, c/o the MentorDoctor.

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