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Is there a secret recipe for successful science-entrepreneurship?

Praveen Vemula

Praveen Vemula is a Research Investigator at The Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (inStem). Research in his lab has led to the launch of two startups- Skintifique and Alivio Therapeutics. His current work is focussed on developing biomaterials for protection of transplanted organs, therapeutics for inflammatory/​infectious diseases and prevention of pesticide-induced lethality. He is working on the launch of his third startup.

The four constants of a successful academic startup.
The four constants of a successful academic startup.  (Photo: Manoj Rangan)

In its purest form, science entrepreneurship is the process of taking fruits of science from bench to bedside. As much as science entrepreneurs are being celebrated now, for an academic scientist the entrepreneurial journey can be understandably daunting. My focus in this article will be to discuss what I think are the indispensable elements for an academician to practice effective science entrepreneurship.

Globally, a large number of scientists are keen to explore the translational possibilities of their science, but an only small percent of them turn entrepreneurs, and unfortunately, fewer of them succeed. Ironically, some science-entrepreneurs experience a string of successes and become serial science entrepreneurs. So, is there a modus operandi or a blueprint for efficacious science-entrepreneurship?

Being a science entrepreneur for over a decade and working alongside few of the most prolific academic entrepreneurs, I have had a chance to observe and learn some invaluable lessons. And, as I see it, apart from being technically sound and doing good research, one needs to possess a blend of skills to be successful. Some core skills needed are- nimbleness in taking decisions, good management, communication and fundraising skills. Nevertheless, these traits can be learned and acquired. 

Alongside the core skills, entrepreneurs are also often driven by unparalleled personal commitment, willingness to take risks and a willingness to subjecting one’s ideas to meticulous challenges even if it threatens the status quo.Over the years of my own entrepreneurial journey, I have developed a four-constants rule for succeeding at startups.These constants, I believe, are generic for all successful translational undertakings.

The foremost of them all is having a great idea — What makes an idea great is a subjective consideration. The basis of judgment here shouldn’t merely be the intricacy or intelligence in the science but which problem is being addressed. If a substantial unmet need can be solved, even by a simplistic approach, an idea can be considered as potent. Science-entrepreneurs measure a technology by how transformative it is rather than its intelligence or complexity! An incremental development of an already existing technology often does not make an impact and is therefore not a rewarding option. To achieve effectual translational science the focus should be on developing disruptive technologies.

Additionally, a great technology can be a one-off product or could be a platform technology. Although, one-off products can provide laser-precision solution to a problem, for a venture having a platform technology is a lucrative option. Considering that biotech ventures often need to pivot their strategies and goals when the initial premise doesn’t work, having the flexibility to tweak the technology in an on-demand manner is always advantageous. 

Next in the order is the protection of intellectual property (IP) — While surviving in publish or perish’ scenario, it is imperative to protect IP rights without creating a prior-art. In fact, protecting an idea by filing a patent is an uncommon notion in the scientific community because the priority is to publish, but for a start-up, IP is money! Academic scientists are not formally trained to write patent applications, but this one attribute is propitious for a science-entrepreneur to possess. Although patent lawyers and firms can help in this process, an active involvement of the inventor can escalate the quality of a patent. 

Fundamentally, a patent should be broad and blocking. A broad patent is the one that covers all the possible modifications of your technology that can be claimed. This gives room for the company to tweak its technology for extended applications. A blocking patent is the one that prevents anyone from practicing a similar technology. However, the ensuing question here would be, are all ideas worth protecting? Given that, patent filing/​maintaining is an expensive process, an inventor should be the strongest critic of her/​his work to see all the possible loopholes in the technology, to decide whether the idea is worth the time and money. An extensive prior-art search and due-diligence can help in this process. 

Then comes, having it published in a top-tier journal — Well, to be fair, the impact of research should be judged only on the quality of the science in itself, and not on where it is published. However, publication in a prime journal undoubtedly has its own merits. These so-called top journals have a rigorous peer review process which imparts credibility to the science behind the technology. They are viewed by scientists across different fields and are covered by media, which provides visibility to the technology. Such publications are also a measurement of success in academics for the reason that they raise the bar for the quality of work and efforts. This credibility and visibility also help attract potential investors. However, not all the studies published in prominent journals are worth pursuing. Therefore, one needs to develop the sense to diagnose the potential of the technology in its embryonic stage.

And finally, having a great team — This, in fact, is the most critical factor amongst all. Having an incredible group of people who share your vision and passion for the technology can make all the difference. Whether an entrepreneurial endeavour will soar to success or be an absolute failure depends on the team dynamics, and this is where management skills come in the picture. An inventor should be able to work with people who complement her/​his expertise and should be willing to give up equity & credit if required, which can sometimes be emotionally demanding. 

Success in translational science is not an accident. Likewise, failure is not an accident, either. Right from the beginning, the more carefully you pick the problem, plan and pay attention to minute details during the entire course of this odyssey, the faster you take control over success. 

So, to address the question, is there a secret recipe here? The answer most certainly is no! All the logistics behind undertaking a science entrepreneurial adventure can be learned and improvised. Nonetheless, it is a defiantly complex journey which needs tremendous courage and emotional commitment but let me tell you, in the end, it is unquestionably worth it. 

Written By

inStem, Bangalore