Learning to Think Like An Entrepreneur

I've just returned from one of the most wonderful professional experiences of my life. I was invited by the Prague Institute for Advanced Studies (PIAS) to give a presentation on scientific careers for their local chapter of Sigma Xi. The entire experience was invigorating: While I presented my material, I learned more about how scientists view the concept of entrepreneurship.

My talk originally started as an overview of the global biotech industry and alternative careers that the industry has generated for scientists. My sponsor, Dr. Peter Pechan, president of PIAS, is an enthusiastic biochemist whose current project is to develop a science park in Prague. Based on the talent available in his country and Czech interest in collaborating with Western countries, I can't help but believe his project will be a success. But in order to get to that point, Peter needs to convert a lot of scientific types into entrepreneurs.

This would be tricky in any culture. I initially wasn't sure how it would work in a newly democratic nation.

Why Should You Study Entrepreneurial Traits?

I was really unprepared for the level of Czech interest in entrepreneurism. Although Czech scientists expressed interest in "self-promotion" and "industry collaboration" at the same level as general Eastern European culture, I was still shocked to find that they wanted me to write an article about entrepreneurship for their Czech science journal, Vesmir. In the United States, topics such as these are most often seen in industry trade journals.

There are several good reasons for all scientists to study entrepreneurial traits. Below are some thoughts on why it would be wise to know more about the entrepreneurial culture, regardless of your future career track:

  • The biotech industry is populated by entrepreneurs. Even if you plan only to collaborate at some point with industry, it pays to know what drives these folks.

  • Future employees of biotech can better assess the risks and rewards of their personal career investment if they understand the entrepreneurial culture. Employees of an entrepreneurial venture can work more effectively with a company's founder or founding team and make better judgments about the firm's future.

  • You might be at the cutting edge of some new area in the future, where it would pay to develop the traits of an entrepreneur beforehand!

Many outstanding scientists who have chosen basic science in academia over industry still believe that it pays to think like an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurial behavior has the potential to create value for the individual scientist as well as his or her host institution. Professor John Kopchick, a molecular biologist at Ohio University's prestigious Edison Biotechnology Institute, recently told me that he considers himself a scientist-entrepreneur.

"My organization expects that of me," says Kopchick. "Doing solid basic research leads to new discoveries, which leads to protection of those technologies in the form of intellectual property." He further explains, "This can in turn lead to licensing and the formation of new companies." Kopchick, who has a background in both academic and industrial science, adds that staying focused on good science doesn't mean you need to exclude entrepreneurial thinking. His institute has been very aggressive in protecting and licensing his work. And this has led to his involvement in the start-up of a new biotechnology company.

Traits of the Scientist-Entrepreneur

There are many general books written about entrepreneurs, but few of them deal with scientific entrepreneurs. One that does is The Four Routes to Entrepreneurial Success, by John B. Miner. 1 Although he ideally could have used more examples of scientists in his case studies, Miner provides a useful comparison of the four types who generally develop entrepreneurial thinking. I've combined traits that Miner identified in the scientist-entrepreneur with comments relevant to the biotech industry.

  • "Desire to innovate": Whether doing basic research or developing a new business model, the scientist-entrepreneur gains a sense of self-accomplishment through discovery and innovation. Continued innovation is a major part of job satisfaction.

  • "A love of ideas": The scientist-entrepreneur thrives on ideas, which are really fuel for the process of entrepreneurial thinking. This person acquires information by intuition as well as through research and discussion. Motivations may often include personal recognition and a desire to reach preset goals.

  • "Belief that new technology development is crucial to the strategy of their organization": While every scientist-entrepreneur starts out with the same love of basic science, they eventually realize that each new discovery represents the basis for a future product or technology.

  • Good intelligence": Sound reasoning and judgment, along with the ability to manipulate with abstractions, concepts, and ideas, are hallmarks of an entrepreneur. These elements are also found in the general scientific population. When intelligence and business acumen are applied to the development of new ideas, the scientific entrepreneur is born.

  • "The ability to understand risks": When we hear of the word "entrepreneur," we may think of an unorthodox, adrenaline-driven start-up founder. In reality, a scientific entrepreneur is more likely to avoid taking undue risks. He or she may study the situation and determine potential alternatives before charging ahead. A scientific entrepreneur may move into what others consider risky territory because he or she has already analyzed the situation and found there is little risk.

Can You Develop Entrepreneurial Skills in Your Current Environment?

As you read over this list of entrepreneurial traits, you might say (as many will), "Hey, that might be me!" After all, some of these traits are drummed into scientists from the first day in graduate school. That's the good news, because as a scientist you have developed the critical-thinking skills and the love of innovation, both necessary for the entrepreneurial spirit.

However, business acumen and a healthy dose of reality are also crucial. Much has been written about the mismatch between academic and business expectations, where naiveté can kill a stellar technology venture even before it gets off the ground.

The difficult part will be finding the right environment in which to test your entrepreneurial potential. As you know from Kopchick's comment above, you do not have to be in an industrial biotech environment to practice entrepreneurial thinking. It is just as easily fostered while doing basic research in the academic postdoc. (In Kopchick's case, one of his postdocs is a founder of that new biotech company.)

In my next column for the Next Wave, I will offer a list of ways in which you can develop your entrepreneurial yearnings in your current institution and provide some interesting case studies of those who have gone before you. Some of my examples will be entrepreneurs I met on my recent trip to the Czech Republic.

1John B. Miner, The Four Routes to Entrepreneurial Success (Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc., San Francisco, 1996).

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