by Jia Jun Tan
Amidst the clicking of pipettes and spinning of centrifuges, 4 years have passed. After spending the better part of it on my PhD project, I came to a sobering realization that I had no idea what I wanted to do after obtaining the doctorate degree. What was the next step? Should I continue the pursuit of knowledge? My fellow travellers on this arduous journey offered several suggestions.
“Be a postdoctoral research fellow and continue advancing the frontiers of knowledge,” one replied. Incidentally, she was the only one among us who genuinely enjoyed being in the laboratory.
“Join the dark side, otherwise known as industry,’ another suggested.” He had dreams of earning enough so that he could retire by forty.
“How about starting your own company?” The most entrepreneurial one among us quipped. He also happened to spend the least time in the laboratory.
While I wasn’t sure if my friend’s entrepreneurial castles in the air were firmly constructed on solid ground, he had planted an idea in my head. I could be a bio-entrepreneur.
Who is a bio-entrepreneur? As the term suggests, a bio-entrepreneur is an entrepreneur who pioneers the start-up of a biotech or biomedical company. Should one become a bio-entrepreneur? Using the research and analytical skills which I had acquired during the PhD, I evaluated my decision based on three points.
Do you have a product or a service to sell?
A business is an entity which sells a product or service. If you have already developed a product or proof of concept during your doctoral studies, congratulations! You may consider starting a company to sell the product or service.
What about the majority of PhD graduates who do not have a product to sell or a proof of concept to develop? A group which I was a part of. We either had a vague idea, or no idea at all. Perhaps, we have never even thought seriously about inventing a product or developing a service for the biomedical sector. If you don’t have a working prototype at the end of your PhD studies, the first step would be to come up with a commercially viable product or idea. The next challenge would be to source for funding to transform the idea into a tangible product. One way to get into the bio-entrepreneurship game is to attend entrepreneurship programmes and apply for fellowships. There, you will meet experienced mentors who would provide you with guidance in the right direction to bring your concepts into reality.
To those who have absolutely no clue as to what products or services to provide, or have yet to give serious considerations to being a bio-entrepreneur, my advice is to keep an open mind to opportunities that may come along the way. Who knows, you just may discover or develop the next big thing on the market!
How credible are you?
Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company, once remarked, ‘You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do. Indeed, I questioned myself. As a newly minted PhD, how credible am I in the eyes of leaders of the biomedical sector? Would investors or funding agencies take me seriously? How do I build my reputation in the business circle?
Although new PhD graduates may have little experience outside academia, leaders and senior professionals in the industry recognize their potential. They understand that fresh graduates may not have much experience at this point in their careers and are willing to mentor them if they are enthusiastic about learning. To increase your visibility in the network, I advocate meeting professionals in the industry to learn from their experience and wisdom. You can attend networking sessions organized by professional societies or the industry. Furthermore, these events also allow you to meet potential clients and business partners. One lesson I learnt from interacting with other people is to not just peddle your wares to the audience, but also to listen to the challenges faced by others. You can offer solutions during these networking sessions. People do appreciate your efforts in assisting them!
A positive reputation and credibility associated with your name, company, and brand will stand you in good stead when looking for funders, clients, and partners for your start-up.
Are you a leader and a team player?
A founder of a start-up is a C-suite member in a company. A team leader motivates subordinates, makes hiring decisions, creates the appropriate company culture, and ensures the efficient allocation of resources. Thus, when thinking about taking the plunge into bio-entrepreneurship, I also assessed if I had the necessary aptitude to take on a leadership or management role.
The leadership skills acquired during your PhD studies stand you in good stead to be a successful bio-entrepreneur. Think back to the times when you spearheaded a project. Initializing the project, managing its procedures, troubleshooting and finally, wrapping it up, hones your leadership muscles, giving you a valuable foundation for bio-entrepreneurship.
At the same time, a successful bio-entrepreneur is also a team player. Working well in a team is not a foreign concept to doctoral graduates. In the course of your research, I’m sure that you have collaborated with individuals from different backgrounds, within and outside the laboratory. A good team player thrives when everyone works well together. He or she also resolves conflict to obtain favourable outcomes.
To pick up other leadership and management skills, you can read books and seek the wisdom of seniors in the industry. Observe how they analyse situations to come to a decision. Learn from their experiences. How did they recover from setbacks? What did they do to ensure continual success?
Of course, the best way to learn is by doing. Nothing beats the experience gained when you start or join a start-up!
All things considered, becoming a bio-entrepreneur is a career which PhD graduates should consider seriously. If you have a product or service in mind, a positive reputation in the business circle, as well as the qualities of a leader and team player, then take the leap of faith now to be a bio-entrepreneur. I hope that my analysis will inspire more PhDs to take the plunge and become bio-entrepreneurs. Wherever you are on your journey, I wish you the very best!
Featured image: Unsplash/Danielle MacInnes
About the Author
Jia Jun is a graduating Bionanotech PhD student in a joint degree program between NTU (Singapore) and BOKU (Vienna). He looks forward to the day when he is his own boss (or retire).