Young scientists have substantial advantages over others when it comes to founding a start-up.
Guest contributor Leonie Mueck
Eoin Hyde has been running from meeting to meeting. His start-up, Innersight, is in a critical phase and he has to convince investors to give him and his co-founder enough funds to get it off the ground. Even with his hectic schedule, he’s full of energy.
“Everything is happening very fast,” he says. Until just a few months ago, Hyde had been working as a postdoc at King’s College London, following a PhD in computational biology at the University of Oxford. He enjoyed his research, but when a former colleague approached him with the request to co-found Innersight, a medical imaging company that constructs 3D images from patients’ scans to help doctors during minimally invasive surgery, he didn’t think twice. “I had been playing with the idea to found a start-up for a long time,” he explains.
Hyde belongs to a minority. Not many science PhDs choose to found companies, at least not in the UK. According to the UK GRAD programme, only 2% of UK-based physical science and engineering PhD graduates are self-employed; it is unknown how many of those have the goal to found fast-growing technology start-ups with global reach. Alex Crompton, programme director at Entrepreneur First, finds these low numbers regretful because in his opinion, science PhD graduates are perfect founders.
Entrepreneur First is an early-stage investor that helps technical talents go from zero to demo day, when their technology start-ups get pitched to investors, in just six months. In the past two years they have helped more than 40 start-ups to fruition, Innersight being one of them. At Entrepreneur First, Crompton is responsible for structuring the programme, closely working together with the participants. And in his experience, young scientists with a PhD have substantial advantages over others when it comes to founding a start-up.
Statistically, PhD students or postdocs are about 50% more likely to raise investment at the end of Entrepreneur First’s programme than graduates with a bachelor or master degree. Crompton thinks that the specialised technical skills which they have acquired doing cutting-edge research are particularly advantageous. These can be harnessed to found companies based on technologies that only very few other people in the world master. . Entrepreneur First calls those distinctive skills ‘edges’. “In our programme, we spend a significant amount of time helping people to use their unique edge to create a company,” says Crompton. Many young scientists vastly underestimate their technical skills and the advantage they give them, he adds.
Resilience to frustration is a huge advantage for founders who have been through a PhD, says Margara Tejera. Tejera did her doctoral work in computer vision at the University of Surrey graduating in2013. With the help of Entrepreneur First, she founded Dara Technologies in 2015, a company that produces interactive children’s books with augmented reality techniques. Tejera is aware of the fact that only one in ten start-ups is successful, but she knows how to handle this mentally. “If you are a young scientist, you are used to this resilience and you are prepared to fail every single day,” she says.
Despite these prospects, Hyde doesn’t regret the decision to quit his postdoc and co-found Innersight, stressing the shorter timescales in the entrepreneurial world as a change for the better. “In science, it can take months before there is a decision about your paper or your grant, and for an impact on society it could take years,” he says. When pitching Innersight to investors, they make their decision right away and face-to-face.
Tejera is equally happy about her transition from scientist to start-up founder, especially because she enjoys working in a close-knit team. “Being a scientist is a very lonely profession,” she recounts. “At the end of the day you sit in front of the computer and to solve a very specific challenge that only you fully understand” Now she works closely with her co-founder and an illustrator on all aspects of the company, from organizing crowd-funding campaigns to breathing augmented-reality life into the characters on the pages.
Tejera is convinced that a lot more talented PhD students would be interested in founding technology companies, if they were aware of this option. Many might simply not know how to start. But Crompton thinks that it’s not about asking how to start, “but ‘Shall I start at all?’”
Apart from applying to Entrepreneur First’s programme, there are many opportunities, at universities and elsewhere, to get advice and meet co-founders. Hyde suggests exploiting academic networks for help. And Tejera recommends taking every opportunity to explore and be out there. “You can’t sit on the sofa, you have to actually do it,” she says. “It’s going to change your life. You decide to do it and you realize that you are 24-7 thinking about this, you are completely absorbed by this. But it’s worth it!”
PhD students in quantum physics might be interested in an opportunity that has opened at Nature. Together with Entrepreneur First and supported by Innovate UK, we have recently announced the launch of the Nature/EF Innovation Forum. Over a period of two months, programme directors from Entrepreneur First will train selected participants in conceiving innovative and viable ideas for quantum-technology start-ups. More information can be found here. The application deadline is 15 January 2016.
Leonie Mueck is Senior Editor at Nature, handling quantum physics manuscripts.