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Four reasons why young researchers should consider entrepreneurship training

“It doesn’t matter how good and innovative your idea is if no one needs it.”

27 August 2020

Andy Tay

Gregory Urquiaga

As a PhD student, Becky Xu Hua Fu completed Stanford University's Ignite programme, which teaches business fundamentals to non-business graduates.

The academic job market has been severely disrupted by the pandemic. Many researchers seeking tenured positions have been forced to put their plans on hold. Those whose research relies on fieldwork or time in the clinic are seeking different ways to maintain their productivity.

But for those who want to trade publishing papers for a more entrepreneurial path, the global health crisis offers a unique opportunity to innovate and quickly address important technological gaps in the market.

Universities are increasingly acknowledging the importance of formalizing entrepreneurship training for researchers, particularly those in fields with high commercial potential, such as materials science, biomedical engineering, and artificial intelligence.

Nature Index spoke to four researchers who have participated in both formal entrepreneurship training programmes and informal mentorship about how their experiences have informed their commercial ventures.

1. Learn how to identify and fill market gaps

Cailin Ng

As a PhD student in electrical engineering, Cailin Ng co-founded HiCura Medical in 2019. The company offers automated image guidance technology to improve the success of epidural anesthesia injections.

Ng established HiCura Medical with two colleagues from the National University of Singapore after attending its biomedical technology accelerator programme, JUMPstart. Since its launch, the start-up has performed clinical validation of its technology with almost 150 patients.

Ng says one of the most important lessons she learned through her entrepreneurship training is understanding how to fill a gap in the market by consulting with patients, physicians and insurers.

She also learned about the kinds of costs insurance companies will and won't cover, and how to approach physicians who are reluctant to engage with new technologies.

“A successful entrepreneur is likely to go through many failed products or iterations before creating the right one,” says Ng. “It doesn’t matter how good and innovative your technology is if no one needs it.”

2. Make better use of university resources

Tristan Dell

As an undergraduate at Imperial College London, Tristen Dell launched his first start-up in 2016 after participating in entrepreneurship classes and competitions offered at the university.

Called Iris Drone Technologies, the start-up aimed to use drone technologies for ‘last-mile’ delivery of diagnostics samples in Malawi.

Due to funding issues, the launch didn’t go as smoothly as Dell would have liked, but he took the opportunity to access resources at his institution, such as prototyping facilities at the Imperial Enterprise Lab and Department of Materials.

In March this year, Dell co-founded his second start-up, SettleUp Earth, which helps consumers to offset their carbon consumption by planting trees on their behalf. The company has planted more than 2,500 trees in the UK and Mozambique, and is preparing to launch a subscription service by September 2020.

Dell, now a second-year PhD student, recommends seeking out senior researchers for advice on specific challenges once your start-up idea is well developed.

He and the SettleUp Earth team were able to validate their carbon offset calculator by working with Niall Mac Dowell, a professor in the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College, whom they later brought on as their first non-executive director.

“Starting a new venture is not easy,” says Dell, “but with the right entrepreneurship training and a strong team, I feel confident that I can translate my ambitions into tangible solutions.”

3. Free and informal training can be just as valuable

James Foote

James Foote, a second-year PhD student at Imperial College and co-founder of SettleUp Earth, says that free, student-run initiatives and societies can be just as valuable to aspiring entrepreneurs as formal training programmes.

Foote says he learned about social enterprises (businesses created to advance a social cause in a financially sustainable way) through a student-run entrepreneurial society called Enactus.

“I was really passionate about making a difference,” says Foote. “That’s why I got involved with Enactus, which is a global non-profit focusing on using entrepreneurship for greater good. I also participated in the Student Consultancy Scheme at the University of Southampton to receive training in communication skills, rapport-building with clients, and project management.”

Foote encourages junior and early-career researchers to pursue the free entrepreneurship initiatives that are often run in major cities, such as hackathons and networking events. “These events can provide you with access to more experienced entrepreneurs who can take on mentorship roles to support your journey,” he says.

4. Step outside the academic bubble

For some junior researchers, entrepreneurship training is less about wanting to start a business, and more about wanting to understand their field within a commercial context.

Becky Xu Hua Fu, a postdoctoral researcher studying cancer biology at the University of California, San Francisco, says the training she did during her PhD gave her insight into the kinds of opportunities that would be available to her if she decides to make the switch from academia to industry.

In 2017, Xu completed Stanford University’s Ignite programme, which teaches business fundamentals to non-business graduates.

Skills such as knowing how to assess the financial standing of a biotech company or start-up at different stages of its lifespan can be particularly valuable when deciding where to apply, says Xu.

And the simple act of growing your network beyond your research circle is one of the most sure-fire ways of hearing about vacancies and getting references.

“Many of my peers – or friends of my peers – at Ignite have created start-ups and have approached me with opportunities,” she says.

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