As Ronan McGovern was finishing up his Ph.D., he was eager to commercialize the energy-efficient seawater desalination process he had developed. He had already done some legwork to find a market and had found an interesting lead—but he had also hit some roadblocks. Like most on the verge of completing a Ph.D., he didn’t have the financial resources to get an endeavor like this off the ground. He also knew that he would be hard-pressed to find a flexible industry job that would pay the bills while he worked on developing his business idea.
Luckily for McGovern, his graduate adviser, John Lienhard, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, supported McGovern’s entrepreneurial interests. They agreed that McGovern could stay on as a postdoc in the lab, earning his keep by continuing to contribute to Lienhard’s research program while also working toward his own entrepreneurial dream.
That was in 2014. By the time McGovern completed his postdoctoral stint in 2016, he was CEO and president of Sandymount Technologies in Somerville, Massachusetts. The secret? Commitment, perseverance—and a pioneering MIT program that helps postdocs explore commercializing their research.
In addition to helping valuable academic innovations make their way out of the lab, the Translational Fellows Program (TFP) aims to help postdocs go from being job seekers to job creators, says program founder Yoel Fink, a materials science professor at MIT. The program, which was first implemented as a pilot in 2013, was inspired in part by Fink’s own decadelong struggle to translate a “perfect mirror” he developed as a graduate student into a laser microsurgery device that could be used in the real world.
The program specifics are still evolving as organizers see what works and get feedback from participants, but here’s what it looks like today. Any MIT postdoc can apply for a 2-month introductory course. Then, a select group proceeds to the second stage, an 8-month period during which fellows receive further training, mentoring, and—crucially—funding to spend 1 day of their work week exploring whether their research can translate into a real-world product or service.
To apply for this second stage, potential fellows must get approval from their adviser. This endorsement, together with the funding, helps minimize any potential friction that could otherwise arise from postdocs spending significant time on ventures that may not be directly related to their adviser’s research. And from the postdoc’s perspective, “dedicating a day a week to the task is a low-risk way to evaluate the commercial potential of a technology,” says Paulo Garcia, a 2015 TFP alumnus. “You are not sacrificing anything.”
Like McGovern, Garcia’s TFP experience helped provide the springboard to get an entrepreneurial venture off the ground: Since the beginning of 2018, he has been working full-time as CEO of Kytopen, a biotech company he co-founded with his postdoc adviser, MIT professor Cullen Buie. The company’s technology promises to accelerate a key step in genetically engineering bacteria, which could enable new applications in genetic engineering and synthetic biology.
Pursuing a startup comes with a lot of uncertainty, Garcia says. As Kytopen’s first full-time employee, working to build the company from the ground up, Garcia felt lonely at times in the absence of the well-defined support structure he counted on in academia. But he found solace in something he learned from TFP: Many businesses go through team changes and product iterations before finding success, but they all begin with one or two founders with vision.
McGovern discovered firsthand the unexpected directions a budding business venture can take. He originally developed his technology with the aim of purifying seawater for industrial and municipal needs. But as he spoke with potential customers and partners, he discovered that the brewing industry could use his technology to remove water from beer without altering its taste and, therefore, save on transportation. He ultimately decided that focusing on that application made more sense from a business perspective, and he finds satisfaction in helping companies build more sustainable supply chains.
Conducting face-to-face customer interviews—an integral part of the TFP training—is crucial for identifying viable real-world problems that one is well suited to address, rather than developing innovations in the relative isolation of the lab and then trying to sell them, Garcia emphasizes. Even when customer interviews confirm a researcher’s initial hunch about what the market might need, aspiring entrepreneurs can still glean valuable insights for fine-tuning their approach, as MIT research scientist and 2016 TFP alumnus Anna Jagielska discovered. She knew that a lack of tools and models hampered the development of therapies for neurological diseases, and potential customers confirmed that there was a need for the artificial neurons she proposed. “But some aspects of our product I thought were critical turned out to be less important, certain others more so,” she says. She has teamed up with a graduate student in her lab to refine the product and hopes to eventually bring it to market.
Talking with potential customers often takes scientists out of their comfort zones, 2015 TFP alumnus Ryan Koppes acknowledges. “In our training as researchers, we are encouraged to go to the library and read the literature to become experts, so venturing out naively to ask questions of strangers was very difficult,” he says. But these conversations are crucial for business—and can also offer some personal benefits. During his TFP days, he was forced to cold call and knock on doors to meet potential customers for his tools to repair damaged nerves: surgeons. Soon he learned to deliver a good “elevator pitch” to quickly explain his research to nonexperts, and his confidence grew as he became more sure of what he has to offer. Nearly all the alumni who responded to a survey said that the program improved their ability to tell a compelling story about their research, Fink says.
More broadly, participating in the program—and the exposure to industry it provides—can offer valuable benefits even to those who don’t immediately go on to launch companies or become CEOs. For Koppes, for example, who is now an assistant professor at Northeastern University in Boston, the TFP experience influenced how he runs his lab. His research is curiosity driven, but he makes it a point to outline the potential real-world impact of each project. This exercise helps him stay focused on the deliverables and outcomes of various projects, and it makes writing the innovation sections of grant proposals a cinch.
Koppes also asks his students to think about who their research is for and why they want to do it, which helps them stay motivated at the bench. He encourages them to contact outside experts to get additional perspectives on their research, just as he did not too long ago. By looking beyond the ivory tower, the students—and any researcher—can find the broader context for their work and optimize its real-world impact.