The Art of Taking Science from Academia to Action

Roy Lipski
Predict
Published in
8 min readAug 12, 2020

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Advice to entrepreneurs seeking to change the world

Science changes the world. But to do so, it has to get from the halls of academia to the everyday lives of ordinary people. That journey is fraught with pitfalls, unforeseen challenges and roadblocks.

Surmounting the obstacles that block the commercialization of transformational scientific advancements is a test that challenges even the most determined entrepreneur.

History is littered with examples of life-changing science or technology taking years or even decades to move from invention to widespread adoption. And many just never make the transition successfully.

Take, for example, some of the profound breakthroughs in human history. Penicillin, one of the most revolutionary advancements in modern medicine, was discovered by scientist Alexander Fleming in 1928, but didn’t see widespread application until 1943, a full 15 years later. Our understanding of electricity was moved forward by Benjamin Franklin’s landmark electricity experiments in 1752, but that didn’t result in the development of electricity generation until 1831, when Michael Faraday’s breakthrough electricity induction experiments set the stage for one of the most transformational technologies of our time.

So why does science get stuck between invention and adoption? And how do we speed that process along, bringing breakthrough scientific and technological innovations to the masses more efficiently? I have spent most of my career immersed in this issue. It is, without question, one of the most difficult tasks an entrepreneur can take on, even after the scientific research has paved the way.

In these times — when large, existential problems like natural resource depletion, climate change, population pressures and global equality press us to transform the way we consume, create and collaborate — it is more vital than ever that we unlock more ways to apply science quickly to the big problems of our times.

Here are a few words of advice for entrepreneurs seeking to move revolutionary science or technology from the halls of universities to the daily lives of the world’s population.

An MBA in Itself Won’t Get You There

Business schools can teach you many things. But the true innovators rarely learn the skills necessary for transformative technology or science commercialization in the classrooms of MBA programs. And there is a reason for that.

To make a crude comparison to art, MBAs teach you to be an art critic but to commercialize science and technology you really need to become an artist.

An MBA in itself won’t get you there

In my opinion, true ground-breaking innovation is an act of creation, an act of self-expression. It requires imagination, vision and the desire to create something entirely new and unique. Business schools can teach operations, management and strategy. But it’s hard to teach creativity, determination and the type of vision that brings entirely new ideas to market.

So don’t expect to come out of business school equipped to turn ground-breaking science or technology into the next Fortune 100 company. There is no roadmap for that process. You must learn it as you go, and be led by curiosity and perseverance as much as business acumen.

Don’t shy away from business school if you need to sharpen you operations, management or strategy skills. Just don’t expect it to give you the magic bullet that will turn world-changing ideas into reality.

Ideas are a Dime a Dozen. Action is Golden.

Ideas are a dime a dozen. Action is golden

Companies cannot be built in your head. Conceiving an idea has almost no relationship to actually building a business or commercializing science. Acting on an idea — and even more importantly, following an idea through to completion as it develops, changes, blasts through dead-ends and finally emerges as a product, service or business — is the true act of creation.

This might sound simple, but it is the foundation of company-building. Perseverance is a must. Determination is not optional. Business plans will get thrown out the window as fast as they are written. If it has not been done before, there is a reason. That reason is that it is probably very, very hard to succeed at.

Brace yourself for a wild ride, many changes of plans, and a lot of adaptability along the way.

Whatever you do, do not think that your original idea will arrive intact and unscathed at the final destination. Think of it as a seed that will grow into something unrecognizably more complex and unique than the thought that first entered your head.

It is but a starting point. The true work — and art — begins after the idea has transformed from a prefect thought into an imperfect plan.

Don’t Downplay Your Perspective

Don’t downplay your perspective

When you set your sights on doing something no one else has done you will work with incredibly smart people. Researchers may awe you with their technical knowledge. Scientists can make you feel intellectually stunted by comparison. It’s easy to be intimidated by such expertise. But don’t.

Just like you need these brilliant scientists, technologists and researchers, they need you. Your work of commercializing these complex breakthroughs could not be done without their work, but it could not be done by them alone either.

Realizing this, and refusing to lose sight of your potential to contribute notwithstanding the expertise of the team you will work with, is a necessary step in the process of commercialization.

Do your homework. Study the science. Immerse yourself in the technology. At the same time don’t downplay your perspective. Know that your outside eyes, your entrepreneurial know-how, your nose for the end market, is an incredibly valuable element of this process.

Translate Science Into Human Terms

Science operates in the sterilized world of controlled experiments. Yet humans exist in the imprecise, messy world of real life. Understanding that a successful experiment does not necessarily mean a successful real world product or service is foundational to successful commercialization.

Luckily there are tremendous scientific and technological advancements just waiting to be applied creatively to real world problems. I discovered this at the start of my entrepreneurial career, when I launched a company called Infonic. In the early days of the Internet, Infonic gauged online sentiment, informing brands like Coca-Cola, Sony and others about the online conversations occurring about their brands. But the breakthrough that turned the company into Europe’s leading Internet Research Agency was the repurposing of algorithms developed out of Cornell University for NASA’s moon rover. We found a way to put that seemingly unconnected piece of technology to work in an early application of Artificial Intelligence, gauging sentiment in language online, and leading the company to expand through this new technology until an eventual acquisition by London Stock Exchange traded Corpora Software.

While NASA’s moon rover algorithms had seemingly few, straightforward commercial applications, we found one that created immense value in the burgeoning world of Internet research and online reputation management. In the end, that computer code developed in a lab for the moon was applied to make sense of the messy, disorganized, decentralized world of the Internet.

Find the Missing Pieces

Sometimes you’re only holding a part of a revolutionary new solution.

Sometimes you’re only holding one half of a revolutionary new solution. I found myself in this position with a company called Oxford Catalysts Group, built to create renewable fuel out of biomass and refuse through powerful new catalysts. We had every piece of the puzzle except for the reactor that could handle the powerful new catalysts we had developed and turn it into the renewable fuels our customers were seeking.

Instead of giving up, I discovered a promising mini-reactor technology, originally developed at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s national research and development labs, and spun out into a company called Velocys. The technology was conceived for space colonization — to get plants for making essential chemicals or energy into space they needed to be designed to be small and light.

Combining our catalyst technology with this reactor technology unlocked the powerful carbon-negative fuel source that we had been seeking. Without the reactor technology, our catalyst technology was hard to commercialize. And without our catalysts, their reactor technology was only one piece of a viable product. It was a match that ended up bringing to market some of the most promising new environmental solutions that the energy industry has seen in years.

Stay Focused on the End

Your idea is going to get real-world reality checks along the way. Materials for product production might be scarce or unsuitable. Manufacturing tolerances may require a change of plans.

If you work in a linear or sequential fashion, you might find yourself continually backtracking to rework your idea to meet real-world constraints. To avoid these U-turns, consider the real world constraints as early as possible — start with the end in mind.

Start from the end point

My latest venture, biomanufacturing company Creo which is still in stealth mode, was developed on the back of some intellectual property from Rice University. Right from the start, while still developing the proof-of-concept at the university, we brought on board a team of industry experts to ensure we were developing something that could be applied commercially in the real world.

This parallel, instead of sequential, process allowed us to explore the commercial applications of the science and think through any commercialization challenges at the outset. Starting at the end point right from the beginning sped the process along, giving us critical insight into the viability of the product and the key challenges we would face throughout the commercialization journey. We could then begin solving these key problems in concert with other efforts, instead of tackling them one-by-one as they surprised us along the way.

Commercializing transformational science is an incredibly challenging process. It is exhilarating and exhausting. But in the end, it offers immense rewards for you and for the world around you. As you embark on that journey, embrace the opportunity to change the world for the better, even in some small, but meaningful, way.

~ Roy Lipski is the founder and CEO of Creo, a California-based biomanufacturing product company. He is a Cambridge–educated entrepreneur who has founded and grown innovative technology companies from startup through IPO to successful merger / exit in fields ranging from Artificial Intelligence to chemical engineering and renewable fuels.

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