By Bani K. Suri
Like many PhD students, I realized that academic research wasn’t for me while trudging through days of failed experiments. Pursuing a PhD in a failure-prone field was challenging and drained the self-confidence, youth, and energy of my mid–20-year-old self. At the lows of research life, which for an experimental biologist are way too many, my resolve to leave academic research was strengthened. But since quitting wasn’t in my DNA, I decided to persevere, complete my PhD, and then leave.
Surprisingly however, the thrill of finishing my thesis and successfully defending it made me itch for a more fulfilling research experience—in a new lab, under a new mentor/supervisor, in a different university. My talk at a conference got me conversing with an interesting clinician-scientist and made me wonder, ‘Why not give research another chance, but from a more clinical perspective’? And so I started my postdoc (which I had sworn to never do!), which was initially planned for 2 years but grew to 4—practically like doing another PhD in a different environment but with more scientific maturity. Interestingly, while my postdoc experience exposed me to different perspectives, thought processes and techniques, it once again drove the point home that research was indeed not something I found fulfilling. My personality was at odds with the demands of the profession and I did not feel a sense of connection to what I was doing. I realized that I wanted to work on something that impacted society in my lifetime, and the time-consuming nature of academic research was not the career path for me.
In preparation to find other opportunities I decided to add on non-academic skills to my kitty and increase my risk appetite. After making the decision to leave academic research, I applied incessantly to science-related jobs in industries and startups. Following a friend’s recommendation, I stumbled onto an opportunity to be part of a talent incubator. There, I learnt a great deal about startups, related jargon, thought processes, customer relations, problem statement validations, doing market analysis and other, as I would call them, ‘real-world’ skills. However, with my background in basic biomedical sciences, it was difficult to come up with ideas that could be translated into an actual product in a span of just 3 to 6 months. Hence, I chose a cofounder whose technical skills were something upon which I could add on rather than provide the core technical foundation myself. Also, I wanted to be the ‘talker’ and ‘thinker’ (read CEO) rather than the ‘doer’ (read CTO/ CSO).
The idea that my co-founder and I arrived at was not new science, but explored a novel application by tweaking an established technology. It was quite a hit based on weekly reviews and feedback we had from peers as well as mentors. In time we realised that short term incubators such as the one we were part of were better geared to support digital health or software related startups than those like ours that focussed on biomedical research-based technologies. The former typically requires very low startup costs and short time frames to launch marketable products, while the latter has high cost and time requirements for product development. We later realised that our product idea did not align with the incubator’s investment strategy and portfolio as well. The experience was an experiment in itself for both the incubator and us, to test whether a startup like ours could function within their monetary and time framework. While my cofounder and I didn’t receive funds to convert our idea into reality, we surely acquired a wealth of knowledge, such as the process of ideating, evaluating, meeting diverse bunch of smart people and networking with this varied bunch! While we failed to access pre-seed funds, we encountered one of the most common themes in the startup world—the inability to raise funds. Thankfully, coming from academic research, moving on from failures is second nature!
My advice for biologists venturing into entrepreneurship is to carefully consider the type of incubator you wish to join and thoroughly assess their capability to support your specific ideas and startup style. In my opinion, an incubator is a great place to meet people, find a co-founder and get initiated into your startup journey. The experience has surely whetted my entrepreneurial appetite and my next goal is to either work for a startup or develop one from scratch. I personally loved that every day was different, starting from researching, thinking, discussing ideas to talking to customers or even attending workshops to get your prototype built. However, the transition from an academic to a startup culture isn’t easy and I had to cultivate several interpersonal and soft skills to ease into this. Continuous human interaction, which is often lacking in a lab setup, is a major part of startup life that can sometimes overwhelm people from academia. Also, working in a 2- to 3-year-old startup would give a person better insight into what to expect and how to grow, especially for folks from academia. Fast-forward to today, I am currently looking for jobs in startups to experience and learn more about what the journey entails and to grow with it. I think I have bid adieu to the lab bench; but if it is a stepping stone to better things, I wouldn’t mind. An important thing I have learnt from my relatively short life experience is to always seek growth and not get too comfortable!
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author’s and not that of ImagenScience.
You can reach out to Bani here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/bani-k-suri/