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Make your path and walk on it

Smita Jain

Lipika Sahoo is a registered Indian Patent and Trademarks Agent with seventeen years of experience in industry in the areas of technology, innovation & intellectual property. In a freewheeling chat with Smita Jain of IndiaBioscience, she spoke about what it takes to step away from conventional career choices in science to follow something that is exciting for you.

Lipika Sahoo
Lipika Sahoo 

After graduating with a PhD from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), what triggered your interest in a life outside of academia?

It wasn’t a planned move. Soon after I submitted my thesis I got a job offer from Novozymes. I was still looking for postdoc positions then. However, the offer Novozymes made, was too good to resist. They were setting up their first India-based R&D unit and I was one of the first group of people to be hired on the team. Not only was it a great opportunity to set up something new and exciting, it also did something to satisfy the entrepreneur inside me. So, I accepted the offer and felt quite sure at that time that I will continue in Novozymes all my working life. When I told my professors about this shift in my career trajectory, one of them, Soumitra Das, a professor at Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology at IISc gave me very good advice. He said, don’t think of it as a destination but as a platform to take off.” That advice has served me well. I have taken each step as it came and, tried to have fun along the way.

What was the initial phase of this transition to the industry like? How different was the environment at Novozymes, in comparison to academic labs?

Yes, it was challenging. I had to learn a lot of things quickly– to work with a team, to work with a new technology, to coordinate with scientists from different countries. The learning curve was steep, but it was an enriching experience. I learnt that in industry goals are different. As PhD students we were more concerned about doing good research, making a thesis and publishing papers. In industry, however, the question was how much IP (intellectual property) could we create with the resource we had access to. In fact, it was at Novozymes that I first got exposed to intellectual property rights, the different patent laws and the processes involved in patenting. 

So that’s where my third question comes. How did you transition again, from industry to being an entrepreneur?

While still at Novozymes, I had started getting interested in IP and patent laws. Also, after two years at Novozymes, the lab, the processes, the SOPs (standard operating procedures), all were set up quite well and I had begun feeling a little stagnant. So, following my instinct, one more time, I quit Novozymes and joined National Law School of India University, Bangalore for a degree in law followed by a Post Graduate Certification in Business Management from Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar. After my second stint at school was over, I was again faced with a choice – whether to go back to the industry or start up on my own. I chose the latter. I thought it would allow me to add value to people’s work and life, in way that was not possible in the industry.

What motivates you to keep learning? Going back to college, wasn’t it hard?

It’s not a course or a degree that motivates me. Instead, it is the process of learning that excites me.I am a people’s person. I just want to know more about different people and learn from each and everybody. So, every year I try to do one or two small courses. Go and mix with a different set of crowd. They could be entrepreneurs, or students, or scientists, or lawyers or dancers. This is what has kept me motivated to learn.

Let’s talk about your life as an entrepreneur. How does it feel to be one? 

I incorporated the company in 2012. Right after which, there was a period when I kept having the feeling of déjà vu. I saw the challenge, the learning curve and the same heady excitement of my early days at Novozymes. We’ve come a long way since then and things are much more stable. I am enjoying what I am doing and I am quite sure I would not have been happier had I continued in the industry.

What are some of the biggest challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

There have been challenges galore. Resilience in facing failure and willingness to learn have helped me trudge along. I think one has to be very positive and believe fully in their goals. And then of course, the other very important thing is to work hard. There can be no compromise in that at all.

It helps to have a supportive family structure. You have to take them along. You have to make them as a team, otherwise, it can get quite hard. We also need to build our relationship with our friends They are like your support network. It’s particularly important for a women entrepreneur.

How do you maintain your work life balance? This is a challenge faced by most professionals, but may be more relevant for women.

I think people have a lot of expectations from women. Like you have to be a perfect mother, perfect wife, perfect professional, perfect in everything. I think we need to let go of this chase for perfection in everything because human beings can’t be perfect. I think that thought can take away a lot of unnecessary pressure. 

It is also important to not worry about other’s approval and to unhesitatingly ask for help when needed.

What is the main mantra of success according to you? 

I think there are three key things that drive success, one is to have a dream, the second is to believe in it and then work hard to achieve it.

One more thing that I believe is important to stay away from too much of planning. If we plan too much and things do not fall in place we become demotivated very soon. You plan what is required and as you go along, plans might change so be flexible enough to accommodate those changes in your plan. 

What message would you like to give to the readers?

For the youngsters, I will say, we have just one life, you really do not need to be very critical of yourself. Be good to yourself, dream big and if you really believe in it, just go for it. Work hard for your dream. Ultimately it is your dream, you wanted it and you tried for it. Even if you fail, the experience of having had a go at it will be more gratifying than not having tried at all.