Your Entrepreneurship journey begins before the end of your PhD
It’s has been two years since I got that piece of paper which allows me to attach two letters in front of my name, “Dr”. Like most students who dream about making an impact in the world through research, I had my eyes set on getting my PhD with loads of publications to validate my contributions. But unlike most deep thinkers, I wanted my research not only answer the deep mysteries of the universe but to disassemble them, study the parts and smush them back together to create my own little monster. Yes, I didn’t just want to be a Dr but a Dr Frankenstein. On top of that, I wanted my monster to solve the problems of the world in the most impactful way possible.
Well, that was just the first step.
Amongst my peers, very few PhD students felt that they had fulfilled their career goals by the end of their scholarship. An even fewer number of students had a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve in the years that followed. But how many budding researchers think about becoming an entrepreneur at the start of their PhD?
Balancing your research career goals with your startup aspirations can be tricky but if done right you can merge both of these paths to form a solid foundation for your future company.
Here are some of the ways your research and startup goals can support each other.
Find a supportive supervisor (preferably with a track record of startups)
Selecting your research supervisor is one of the most defining moments of your PhD. The right supervisor can encourage you to explore your entrepreneurial projects from technology to product. On the other hand, a less inclined mentor may advise you to focus only on your core thesis work.
Academic supervisors have traditionally chosen research as their sole career path. These are people who are deeply interested in the “why” of a phenomenon. Going into the “how” of building things falls outside of their focus. This is why it may be harder to convince most PhD mentors to work on applied projects, let alone building a product. That being said, many academics are now shifting their mindsets to accommodate a patent or two under their belt along with a publication track record, sometimes because of administrative pressure. In such cases, it is slightly more likely that your entrepreneurial ambition will be kindled. However, you are also likely to be the first entrepreneur in your lab and will have many a conversation convincing your supervisor to go one step further outside their comfort zone.
A good fit, in this case, would be to find a PhD mentor who can also double up as your startup tech mentor. This “species” is rare but is also quite a celebrated contributor to the department’s outreach and marketing goals. They have industry connections, the product building mindset and a good track record of their past technologies commercialized into products. Their achievements will usually be championed by university entrepreneurial hubs. They will have experience in building great IP through their research and will also be open for you to pursue most projects with an entrepreneurial goal in mind.
Do at least one application oriented project
During the course of your PhD, you will often work on multiple projects at a time. Your thesis project will be led by your own research along with side projects in collaboration with other research groups. The main goal here is to try to find one project which focuses on building something. If you belong to a “why”- focused research group, collaborations with applied research groups are a good avenue to explore such possibilities. You could build an algorithm, a new microscope or even a new system to analyze data. This project should be something that you can imagine turning into IP a few years down the line. Aim for that patent and find out what tech is missing in your research space.
Build your entrepreneurship tribe
One of the best ways to ideate and find relevant research projects is through your peers. Use your conferences, department events, and your university environment to incubate your ideas.
In college, you’re in the perfect friend-making environment, one that hits all three ingredients sociologists consider necessary for close friendships to develop: “proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.”
The same ingredients that allow you to make friends, also form the secret sauce for meeting your co-founder in university. Your co-founder should be someone you can imagine working with and fits the best colleague role better than the best friend role. So talk to as many strangers as you can about your ambitions. Find someone who complements your skills to make a solid business team. Being a PhD, you’ll have strong tech skills so find someone who’s great at selling your ideas.
You could also consider mentoring other aspirational founders in your circle. You’ll find that most founders share the same startup-related questions that you have. A great way to get connected is to simply be seen! Participate in hypothetical pitching competitions, organize talks by guest entrepreneurs and create your own founder circles. Getting connected to students from such groups can also help you to create an environment for ideation.
So what if you didn’t get a shot at an applied project? Get in touch with your university IP office.
“Of today’s 2.1 million active patents, 95 percent fail to be licensed or commercialized.”- Daniel Fisher, Forbes 2014
Getting existing patents licensed is one of the key performance indicators of your patent office. Talk to licensing officers and get in touch with inventors of interesting tech where you could contribute. Explore the feasibility of commercializing their ideas. Who knows? You could potentially start your company with one of the inventors!
Apply for startup courses and get experience
Depending on your graduate programme, you may be required to complete a certain amount of coursework as a part of your scholarship requirements. Although your research mentor will advise you to select courses relevant to your research area, you can always seek approval to attend courses outside of your department. Check what startup related courses your university offers. Time them such that you can pursue your business idea through the course. Some courses last a few weeks to months and some have a thorough start to finish over the semester. Find one that suits your research calendar. This may not be easy considering your qualifying exams, conferences, paper submissions, teaching commitments, etc. To match your schedule better consider working for a startup. Many startups offer internships to fulfil administrative and event management requirements. Getting your hands dirty in real-world startups will teach you the reality of founding a company. Soft skills are an important aspect of founding and there is no better way to learn than by doing.
Most importantly for researchers building their products, make sure that what you are building is something that customers will actually pay for. A lot of time, thought and research money is spent on the science behind your product but customer research has huge financial implications on the success of your company. Use your resources wisely. “Get out of the building” and continuously pitch your idea to customers. What you are building may not be something that customers would actually want. Identify your customer. Ask the right questions to get insights into key business metrics (a.k.a. include control experiments). Customer responses will tell you whether you need to get back to the drawing board or go ahead with commercialization, even before you build your product. Cut your losses by pitching early. A simple one-liner about your product and a couple of pictures are usually enough to gauge customer interest.
Find a strong support system
The above tips are great to set the ball rolling for your future company before you become a full-time Founder who is financially dependent on your company’s success. The success of your company, however, largely depends on how well you execute your idea. For many first-time entrepreneurs, this is the hardest part to figure out. It’s easy to lose accountability when your PhD commitments become a priority. You may eventually lose traction when the going gets tough towards the end of your scholarship. It is often in these times, that support is needed the most but you may not be able to actively engage yourself with a business course or a full-time incubator. The final leap of faith into entrepreneurship is hard to achieve under these circumstances.
So is there any way to maintain traction and a founder mindset when you are building your company part-time?
Yes, an online accelerator program can do wonders!
Traditional incubators have a physical office, constant assistance, mentorship and plenty of input. These are great ingredients for full-time Founders confident of their future company. Having been through one, I found what didn’t work for me was the pressure to produce results in a tight timeframe. I had to be present and pitching for most of the programme leaving little time for ideation and creativity. What I would recommend for researchers is a smoother transition into entrepreneurship.
There is a new breed of programmes that are virtual. While traditional incubators stick to a fixed timeframe and are dependent on your availability, virtual incubators work the other way around. They provide a safe-space for ideation and product development that you can access according to your availability. For example, you could learn what “marketing” means while your experiment is running. You could conduct validation while talking to your customers over the weekend. You could even have a quick call with your business mentor while you’re overseas for a conference. The Startup Buddy is one such platform with curated *missions, relevant educational content, online access to mentors and a community of entrepreneurs. The great thing that I find in this platform is that it is completely flexible in terms of time. It can easily fit into your PhD schedule.
*Missions are a series of milestones to guide first-time founders through the process of building their first startup. Each mission has concept introductions, a must-do list to generate traction, experienced mentors when you need guidance and assistance for all the tasks you simply cannot do on your own.
Finally, your university is the strongest support system to lay the foundation of your Startup. Apart from building a strong network and getting a business education, find opportunities to use university startup grants, competitions, and entrepreneurial hubs to gain support to explore your technology as a business opportunity. Explore the possibility of building your own company under the wings of your university. It’s the biggest experiment you could ever conduct!
The Startup Buddy is SEA’s founder friendly Startup builder. We provide step-by-step guidance through specially designed missions, mentors from around the world and curated content to help you in your Startup journey! Find out more at The Startup Buddy!