Scientists are inherently entrepreneurs, as Ada Yee learned when comparing the two during a business school talk.
Contributor Ada Yee
I slipped into a chair at the “Reserved for Latecomers” table, and poured a coffee. I was at a talk by Stanford business school alum Amy Wilkinson on her book “The Creator’s Code”– describing six traits that make entrepreneurs successful. I felt out of place. As a dyed-in-the-wool academic, I’d never counted myself in on the Silicon Valley buzz, but a lab mate had given me his ticket. It was 7am, and I’m a 10am-to-10pm-type grad student—but a grad student nevertheless—and so not one to turn down free eggs and bacon.
My school prides itself on being an innovation incubator, a campus that spawned the founders of Google, Cisco, and Yahoo. Nevertheless, there remains in me a feeling that science and business don’t mix. The majority of academic science still operates on an apprenticeship model, where “losing” students to companies is to lose them from the academic pantheon and kill your own lineage. Growing up in the Silicon Valley, I read headlines on the conflict of interest held by professor-scientists with industry ties in the post Bayh-Dole era (the 1980 decree that paved the way for tech transfer). At a party recently, a student-turned-startup member told me, “academic scientists like to dig really deep into a problem. That doesn’t work in industry. It’s too slow.”
Which brings me back to the early morning breakfast session. The talk was part book pitch, part how-to session. Though I was initially skeptical, as I downed hash browns with orange juice, bells started to ring.
Entrepreneurs have a way of spotting unmet needs, or “finding the gap”, Wilkinson said, using the analogy of an open-eyed, open-minded child. Only weeks before, this “beginner’s mind” analogy had been used in a workshop I’d taken, “Research As Design” at the Stanford Design School (“d.school”). The instructors had done their own research into the “creative mindset” of academics, and had found that academics spent a lot of time and energy on framing their questions, “put[ting] essentially all […] energy into finding what we don’t know”—or, I suppose by entrepreneurs, by what people want or would use.
Wilkinson described how PayPal’s founders “looked for the counterintuitive data” and “observed for glitches,” turning seeming accidents into advantages. Initially having designed a money-transfer system for PalmPilots, they switched to internet payments only upon noticing that on eBay, users were copying and posting PayPal’s logo, to get other users to pay by PayPal. My inner biology nerd recalled “tyrosine phosphorylation”, a site-specific tag that can activate proteins to function in a cell. Its discoverer, Tony Hunter, repeated his experiment one morning only to see his result disappear. Rather than dismiss his old data as a glitch, he realized that initially he’d used a bottle of old, oft-reused solution. He “re-aged” his new reagent, and found that it had gone acidic on the shelf, permitting his finding!
Good entrepreneurs “failed wisely,” Wilkinson continued, describing how they strategically set “failure ratios”. By this point in grad school, I’m intimate with failure. But hearing of the calculated failures taken by entrepreneurs, I thought of what a postdoc—now PI—had said to me: “I always want a lot going on, so if one thing doesn’t work, at least something else might.”
By the end of the morning, I could easily see how a successful scientist needs the attitude of a successful entrepreneur. How is starting a new lab much different than starting a startup, with all the requisite passion, hard work and dedicated belief in the work you do? When an audience member asked how to adopt the “Creator’s Code” at his own company, Wilkinson responded, “in small little experiments.” Sounds like a promising pilot experiment to me.
Ada Yee is one of the 2015 Boston Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition winners and a PhD candidate in Neuroscience at Stanford University. Her research interests include synaptic transmission, plasticity, and neural development. She currently co-hosts and co-produces Neurotalk, a podcast that features neuroscientists conversing about their scientific paths and interests. Outside of research and writing, she enjoys playing the clarinet and roaming technoratic San Francisco, in search of luxuries (at least, by grad student standards) such as rush tickets, coffee, and $4 toast.