Spinning Out of the Lab: My Journey from Academia to Entrepreneurship

I went into my PhD with no intention of a career in academia.

This oftentimes surprises others who decided to pursue other amazing paths. Instead, I applied to my PhD with every intention that I would start my own company one day. I saw that the science I wanted to learn didn’t quite exist in industry yet, so I figured that a PhD was the best way to go.

Let’s rewind.

When I started my PhD most of my classmates wanted to be a professor. Over time it became a binary question, “academia or industry?” To be fair — I equally admire PhDs that pursue industry roles to those who become professors. The creative thinking each role uses behind their job titles amounts to some stellar outcomes.

However, I decided to start my own company (with 3 other co-founders who are professors, of course!). Over time I have heard incredibly mixed feelings about how I am perceived as a PhD founder/CEO. I’ll share some of the good, the bad, and the ugly. But let’s start with the positives!

Some upsides:

  1. Academia teaches you how to think critically and design novel solutions.
    As a PhD you read a massive amount of research papers and are looking for gaps in the research. Then you have to take all of that information and make something that synergizes all of the information you just collected. In a company you are also trying to figure out how to make a product that solves a problem. Similar to academia, this starts with research. You have to make sure that the solution does not already exist, that there is a need for your product or service, and that someone will actually pay for your product.. The lines between “Is there really a product-market fit?” vs. “is there a scientific gap that needs to be solved and fulfilled?” becomes blurred.
  2. Half of your PhD training is about convincing someone about what you’re doing.
    I don’t feel like this is out of touch with what I see in raising money and attracting partners. From the start of your PhD you are trying to convince someone why you’re fit for a PhD program, why someone should be your advisor, why this is a good project to pursue, why this data should be accepted as a peer-reviewed journal publication, preliming, and defending. Then you get into the world of raising money and you’re trying to convince someone that there is a customer, that your market actually exists, that you’re the team to figure out this problem, that you know what you’re doing, and that you can bring a sizable return on investment.
  3. You know how to deal work in a team.
    In undergrad most of my core classes involved team projects. When it came to my PhD, though, my labmates were who got me through. We would have weekly meetings, debating data. Coffee or ‘show up at their lab bench’ talks to bounce off ideas to pursue. Newfound collaborations and papers to work on together. Mentoring new lab members. We also all had to autoclave the biohazard waste, clean up our lab benches, order food for the meetings, and so on.

I truly don’t see it as being that different in a startup. There is no hierarchy. Ideas are always being bounced around. You’re learning together. Everyone still has to clean up their trash or the messes they’ve made. And you have to figure out how to work with each other to meet an end goal. My PhD really enabled me to learn about supportive environments and teamwork.

Then, of course, come some of the downsides.

  1. Treating the work like a research project.
    I hear this issue all too often. Academics can often treat their work like a research project rather than as a company. For a long time it was a hard thing for me to understand and differentiate. In a lab you work on a research endeavor, and build on it or end it, but there is no need to see if it’s useful. Or if it will be usable. Or if there is a market. You research it because you’re interested in the problem. You aren’t necessarily taught how to define a value proposition or perform primary market research. Or how marketing, business development, operations, and financial forecasting are all necessary. You often are captivated by just the technology or scientific discovery. But, as they say, for creating a company it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
  2. The cold harsh world of minimal resources.
    My PhD had so many resources. Shared lab space and lab equipment. Departments that did the accounting for me to refund my conference travel. Free food, free scientific talks, free mentorship. A startup makes you realize everything has a price, and that’s a cold harsh reality. Moving from academia to entrepreneurship really puts these realities in the forefront. I remember feeling a tinge of sadness when I received the bill from a company for their services, and the cost included emails and phone calls. It was naive of me, but folks, that’s not something academia teaches you.
  3. Strategy? Business development? Sales cycle? And the PhD ego.
    Okay, maybe this one doesn’t work for a business PhD. I can’t say, I never went that route. But I had to learn, and fast. Where a PhD taught me to think on my feet and pick up concepts as quickly as I could, I initially was drowning in these newfound concepts. Financial forecasting was a bear. People often spoke to me like I knew what an LLC vs. a C-corp was. A PhD is all about researching a very particular topic and being the resident expert on it. Want to talk about Brownian motion? I am your girl! But going over the legal terms in a contract? Eep. I know many entrepreneurs start from scratch but as a PhD you were so used to being the expert that in a startup it was time to let go of that ego. It was about knowing even where to start with the questions (I remember wondering what in the world was the difference between accounting and finance and what ‘operations’ even meant).

Whew. And in true academic style, I definitely love giving long-winded monologues about my thoughts. At the end of the day I think the pros far outweigh the cons for spinning out of academia. I am learning the business side of things day-by-day, stumbling through about 90% of the time. But I know that this is where I belong. At the end of the day I am still working with my team, thinking critically, and presenting my argument. And the topics that I didn’t focus on in academia can be made up for through my company’s employees, mentors, and friends.

I am proud to be both an entrepreneur and academic.

-Katherine Clayton et al. 2019