Entrepreneurship Essentials I: The Academic Entrepreneur

Greg Villareal
Aug 10, 2016 · 8 min read

By Greg Villareal Ph.D, Asis Lopez B.S., Dorn Carranza Ph.D/MBA

The article you are reading is the first in a series of entrepreneurship topics that will include interviews with individuals across the STEM workforce. They will examine existing pathways, private and public, traditional and nontraditional, for founding a successful company. The SACNAS Entrepreneurship Article Series will also share stories from SACNAS community members who are not only company founders but junior UR scientists-entrepreneurs currently advancing in their startup ventures.

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Many of us have seen every day Americans pitch to “Sharks” on TV or heard stories about hoodie wearing millennials becoming billionaires through social tech companies. But how does an academic scientist take a technology idea from the laboratory to a commercialized product, one which will actually improve the human condition and save lives?

Entrepreneurship is seen by many as one pillar in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) workforce, which also includes federal agencies, industry, academia and non-governmental organizations. But, how many academic scientists-turned-entrepreneurs can you name? Do you know what resources they utilized to launch their own companies? Once they were entrepreneurs, did they remain in academia? And, perhaps a more pertinent question, are any of those academic scientists traditionally underrepresented (UR) in the STEM workforce?

Alarming Innovator Demographics

America is on a path towards improving billions of lives around the world through promising inventions and disruptive ideas. However, the faces which represent this new wave of innovation and job creation do not necessarily reflect the growing demographics of our diverse nation. A 2016 study showed that American-born UR scientists (Hispanics, Native Americans, Blacks) and Women represent less than 4% and 10%, respectively, of all innovators in the United States. As any entrepreneur will point out, where there is need there is opportunity.

Who are Academic Entrepreneurs?

Before becoming an Entrepreneur (one who successfully brings an actual product to market), the Scientist must become the ‘Innovator’ — someone who possesses the technical depth, understanding of customers and markets, and ability to execute on their technology idea. Aspiring Entrepreneurs in academia can be the persistent Post Doctoral Scholar (postdoc) or student-scientist who discovers something novel and useful from their research. They can be the Principal Investigator of a small group or large multi-team laboratory and center, and they can also be the young but very ambitious faculty researcher transitioning into a new position. In some cases they could even be academic administrators. Although the path may seem nebulous to most, for some, one of the first steps may seem clear, simple (or consuming) and similar to writing a peer-reviewed paper or research grant.

The Faculty Innovator

Back when disco was popular, Ray Rodriguez, Ph.D, University of California Davis Professor, was a postdoc in the laboratory of Dr. Herbert Boyer, co-founder of Genentech. He may not have realized it at the time, but Dr. Rodriguez’s research led to the birth of the biotechnology industry. Dr. Rodriguez said that, “While not pursuing patentable discoveries back then, I learned to look at discoveries and new technologies from both a basic and applied perspective.” For faculty scientists interested in commercialization, this is one of the first steps in the journey to become an Innovator — identifying translational science which can be protected.

Dr. Rodriguez added, “Developing a patent is like writing a scientific paper in terms of time commitment, so I don’t see it as a detractor from grant writing or teaching. Rather, I see my U.S. patent history as a value-added component to my career as a university professor.”

When Dr. Rodriguez arrived at UC Davis in 1977, the Intellectual Property (IP) infrastructure was fairly minimal. He recalls that the ‘Strawberry Patent’ was frequently cited as an IP success story but there really wasn’t any biotech/pharma patents back then. In fact, his co-invention for a novel restriction enzyme patent distinguished him as one of UC Davis’ early biotech innovators. He subsequently started three health-related biotech companies and helped found 25 other high-tech startups. Today, Dr. Rodriguez praises the IP infrastructure at UC Davis as “skilled, knowledgeable and very active.”

Protect your Ideas!

To become Innovators, Scientists (faculty, postdocs, students) need to work with their institution to legally protect their ideas. Universities face an operational dilemma in balancing the dissemination of knowledge to society while promoting economic impact through patent-protected university technology and research. Clyde Phelix, Ph.D, University of Texas San Antonio faculty innovator and co-founder of AL Phahelix Biometrics, Inc. advises students and faculty scientists that when, “presenting their posters at conferences or thesis defense, this information becomes ‘public disclosure’ which could have unintended consequences that undermine commercialization opportunity of the idea or technology.” It is paramount that students and faculty advisors always keep an open dialog about translational science and commercialization opportunities i.e. keeping in mind, for example, that ‘basic research can help the sick’.

The provisional or full patent filing process itself can take time and significant resources to determine claims for IP protection. Even then there’s no guarantee the technology will be licensed, much less profitable. There may also be financial challenges in covering filing costs and maintenance fees. Depending on how technology transfer office deals are structured, the inventors may pay less (or nothing) in ‘front-end’ costs but give up equity and royalty options to the university. No matter how early, or late, you feel your technology may have commercialization potential, research the subject and seek the advice of your institution’s technology transfer (commercialization & innovation) office.

Finding Value in your Discoveries

While Dr. Rodriguez was working with the plasmid cloning vector, pBR322 on the West Coast in 1976, another UR postdoc around the same time on the East Coast (at Harvard University) was leading the first team to utilize recombinant DNA techniques to synthesize human insulin using bacteria. That’s right, another discovery by a SACNISTA revolutionized the biotechnology industry! Lydia Villa-Komaroff, Ph.D, Board Member and co-founder of Cytonome/ST, LLC, recalled that she caught the entrepreneurial ‘bug’ while sitting in a Boston law office finalizing a patent, a day after reporting their novel finding.

Despite the excitement, the prospect of an academician becoming an entrepreneur hasn’t always been positive. Dr. Villa-Komaroff recalled, the trite attitude of most faculty around the country back then was that “only someone who could not succeed in academic basic research would have to enter the business world.”

Transitions from Academia to Industry Entrepreneurship

It was not before long Dr. Villa-Komaroff, the postdoc-turned-startup scientific advisor began developing her business acumen. She had a front row seat at Biogen board meetings, a company her research advisor co-founded and is predicted to have ~$11Billion in revenues this year. This educational experience on governance was also valuable as academic administrator at the Whitehead Institute for Biological Research, when she served as Board Chair of Transkaryotic Therapies (TKT), a publicly traded biotech company. She said, “When Shire made an offer to buy TKT, I had a real-time roller coaster experience as we negotiated the transaction.” She was essentially ‘learning by doing’.

This example should be a teaching moment to all aspiring entrepreneurs: you don’t need an M.B.A. to succeed in business, but you do need to be a life-long learner. Read Business and Science & Technology articles and blogs, take online-courses, participate in organized groups, embrace leadership roles. In fact, many of you reading this article are already developing transferable skills to become an Entrepreneur: critical thinking, problem solving, negotiating, collaboration, flexibility, teamwork, competition, communication, leadership, presentation skills, identifying important questions.

Startup CEO in Training

In addition to scientific training, executive courses (finance, in particular) such as the ones at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management also deepened Dr. Villa-Komaroff’s understanding of the business world and helped her develop skills such as people management, running meetings and strengthening confidence. All these combined experiences came into action when she co-founded and became Chief Executive Officer of Cytonome/ST, a leading company in cell purification. Her advice about Entrepreneurship: “there is not a single path to follow, there are many ways and times to enter the business side of science. It helps to be alert to opportunity and to be comfortable with a bit of insecurity.” Dr. Villa-Komaroff, knows a thing or two about startups, after all she was a co-founder (as a graduate student) and past board member for a 43-year old startup called SACNAS.

SACNAS Entrepreneurship

Since 2012, SACNAS has spearheaded the promotion of Entrepreneurship among UR scientists through professional development sessions at the annual conference. The goal of these entrepreneurship sessions is to raise awareness of resources and develop a diverse start up ecosystem of founders (most whom are UR scientists), tech transfer officers, policy advocates, investors, foundations, mentors and respective non-governmental organizations.

One organization in particular, VentureWell, has been paving the road to help STEM students, faculty and researchers become successful innovators and entrepreneurs through programs and summits. This year marshals in a new era where VentureWell and SACNAS, working together, will inspire the nation to become more competitive and sustainable through nurturing STEM innovation and inclusiveness. Over the coming years they will strategically increase entrepreneurship opportunities for UR scientists through interactive mediums and the SACNAS conference session ‘Entrepreneurship Essentials’. Panelists will share their unique perspectives and insights on their personal journeys through entrepreneurship and how they support the start up ecosystem within their community. Future endeavors may include SACNAS ‘demo-days’ a.k.a business pitch competitions, workshops, webinars and startup-bootcamps.

Sharing in Success

With 20 US patents, Dr. Rodriguez (a 2016 SACNAS conference ‘Entrepreneurship Essentials’ panelist) sees his greatest success as ‘sharing in his success’. His first accountant made a deep impression on him by admonishing, “If you’re not prepared to share the wealth, you’re not going to have much wealth.” As a consequence, some of Dr. Rodriguez’s students became his employees in the start ups he formed. They bought comfortable homes (some larger than his) and sent their kids to college. Some even started their own profitable companies. This success should not be misconstrued as avarice, but when you do what’s good, the community does well. Which is why Dr. Rodriguez noted with great humility, “As a faculty Entrepreneur, what more can I ask for?”

Entrepreneurship requires self-conviction, skill, luck, resilience and money (just like scientific research) but before anything else, there needs to be passion and purpose. As Scientists all we can really do is ask the questions to seek answers. As Innovators all we can really do is take those answers and ideas and turn them into a product. As Entrepreneurs all we can really do is make a small dent in the universe by improving our condition.

This end only signals the beginning. Up next in the series, ‘Entrepreneurship Essentials Part 2: Finding & Funding Your Idea’.

Learn more at sacnas.org.

About the Authors

Greg Villareal, PhD is a contributor and connector within the start up ecosystem; Asis Lopez, B.S. is a BioEngineering/BioMedical Graduate Student at Tulane University and SACNAS student Board Member. Dorn Carranza Ph.D/MBA is Senior Program Officer for Venture Development and Entrepreneurship at VentureWell.

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