Independent Science: Beyond Academia and Industry

17. September 2013

Miriam Boer

When I finished my Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Maryland in 2011, I graduated into one of the toughest biotech job markets in history. I applied for over 200 traditional positions within academia and industry, with no luck. As my search stalled, I turned to a pet interest I had had in low-intensity ultrasound and built a business plan around using it as a novel melanoma treatment.

I didn’t realize it right away, but my startup took me into the world of independent science, where the goal is doing your work on your terms—right now. While the science job market is tighter than ever, lab spaces are actually becoming more affordable, particularly if you are willing to work in a communal setting. From how it’s funded to the workplaces associated with it, independent science deviates from conventional expectations of scientific research. My nontraditional startup, Sonify Biosciences, LLC, is one of many that exist outside the confines of academia, big industry and government jobs.
 
Who’s involved?
The people who consider themselves independent scientists range from hobbyists without college degrees to those with postdoctoral or even professorial experience. The network is larger than just the individuals or small groups who spearhead them. For instance, my specialty lies in biochemical wet-lab work, so I contract out the engineering and physics to people whose skills and knowledge exceed mine. They’re not technically employees, but they’re vital to Sonify’s success.
 
How do you fund this?
The quick answer is any way you can. The long answer is that, because the endgame is getting to do your own work, independent scientists can be funded by one or more of the following: private investment, grants, Small Business Innovation Research money, crowdsourcing, loans, angel investment, or even their own savings. Each has pros and cons. For me, my first success was winning the Recent Alum and Best Biotech categories of the University of Maryland 2012 business plan competition. The bottom line is that you have to understand your individual situation. There’s no right way to do this, but that means there’s no wrong way either.
 
Where do you work?
I refer to Sonify Biosciences as a “gypsy” startup because I don’t have permanent lab space. I’m renting space in a shared services lab in a local teaching hospital. By contrast, building a biological research facility from scratch would run hundreds of thousands of dollars. Keeping overhead low enabled me to start at what’s referred to as stage zero—the point where you’re doing proof-of-concept research without an intellectual property portfolio (meaning you hold no patents). It’s nearly impossible to get stage zero investment, because there’s nothing in it for the investor. However, by keeping my total costs below even the value of most grants, I made the gamble worthwhile to my investors.
 
Shared workspaces already exist in many cities. These so-called high-tech “hackerspaces” are becoming more common, with even large industrial entities investing in the promise of the independent research model. For example, Janssen Labs set up a shared biological research facility on Johnson & Johnson’s R&D campus in La Jolla, and one is opening in Boston as well. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore is developing a shared space for independent engineering efforts. Even if you don’t live in a startup hub, you can still find workspace if you get creative.
 
Should I get involved?
You have to know yourself. I enjoy the unstructured approach, and being able to work on my own ideas before I’m 30 took precedence over working towards a guaranteed lifelong job. Ultimately, you must figure out the right vehicle to do work that generates value, however you define it. For me, it’s a nontraditional startup. For you, it might be something completely different. You can start by figuring out what ideas and possibilities excite you, both as a person and a scientist.
 
Miriam Boer (mboer@sonifybio.com) is the founder and CTO of Sonify Biosciences LLC in Baltimore, Md., U.S.A. She tweets @mademoiselleMim and blogs at http://independentscience.tumblr.com/.

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Career Advice from Top Entrepreneur Milton Chang

16. October 2012

Milton Chang

At this week’s Frontiers in Optics meeting, Milton Chang shared his advice about how to forge a path toward entrepreneurship at the OSA Student Leadership Conference. Here are highlights from his talk.

Many of you are already off to a good start toward constructing a fulfilling technical career: You have shown active involvement in your community and picked a technical field for your future. You will find your niche and do well.

I was once where you are: wondering what to do with my career. I immigrated from Hong Kong for college; worked my way through my undergraduate years; and was employed by an aerospace company for a few years. Then I joined a start-up as the 7th employee. Eventually I became president of that company—The Newport Corporation—and took it public.

You too can build a successful future. With your technical know-how, you can do anything you want, as long as you continue to broaden yourself, learn and study. Here’s how to ensure that your career will move in the right direction over the long term:

Gain as much expertise as possible to compete for opportunities. Hiring managers are looking for someone with expertise who can get the job done. Having a graduate degree is a great starting point—

but don’t stop there. Learn as many skills as possible to gain access to jobs that others will not have. Often having the combination of a few skills will lead you to many more opportunities than you would have with just one area of expertise: 1+1=10.

Having a breadth of knowledge enables you to make sound decisions. When choosing your career path, you don’t want to have blinders on—so make sure you learn about subjects beyond your technical area. In particular, having business acumen and an understanding of management can make you more effective on the job as an engineer and also provide you with more career options.

Your reputation and your network are your resources. There are two types of networking you can engage in as a professional: The “shoulder slapping” variety, in which you forge friendly connections with a wide range of others, and the stronger relationships you have with a few confidantes. Both types are important to your career.

For those interested in pursuing the entrepreneurial path, here’s how to get started:

Be really good at what you do and know your industry. This is the #1 requirement for being an entrepreneur. You need both technical expertise and knowledge of business and management. Avoid pursuing an idea that is outside of the industry you know intimately; instead go for a niche that capitalizes on your expertise and grow the business over time as you gain experience.

Start by joining a well managed company. Perish the thought of starting a company right out of school—you simply don’t know enough yet. Strive to succeed by first learning what it takes to succeed and by building your professional reputation and network.

Take on project management. You don’t want to just grind away at a narrow task or technology that could at some point become obsolete. Engaging in big-picture project management will help you gain well-rounded skills, build your network and learn how the world works. This is what will make you become more valuable over time. Volunteering for a professional society is a great way to start.

In summary, I recommend that you think broadly about your career first, and then decide later if entrepreneurship is right for you. For more specifics on starting a business, read my book Toward Entrepreneurship: Establishing a Successful Technology Business.

Milton Chang (miltonchang@incubic.com) is the director of Precision Photonics, mBio and Aurrion, a trustee of Caltech, and a member of the SEC Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies.

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Are You an Entrepreneur?

25. September 2012

Lisa Balbes

This post was adapted from content on the Career blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS) with the kind permission of ACS and the author.

Recently, I encountered several graduate students who were considering starting their own businesses. While many people dream about being an entrepreneur, a significantly smaller number are willing to put in the time and effort it takes to make their dream a reality. A colleague who has been running his own company for over 20 years said that, when people ask for his advice on starting a business, he tries to talk them out of it to gauge how dedicated they are to the idea. When he started his own business, he noted that “the only thing that would have stopped me from doing it was if my wife had told me no!”

If you have that kind of dedication, you just might be an entrepreneur.

Starting point
A great place to begin is by writing a business plan—a document in which you completely describe the business. Forcing yourself to write it down will make you step back and really plan out the venture. The living document then serves as a roadmap as you move forward and start to involve other people. 

Summary
One of the first sections of the business plan will be the executive summary. You should be able to describe your business in several different levels of detail. Are you going to sell a product or a service? What is your targeted industry? What will make your offerings compelling to potential customers?

Legal structure
Will you start a sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability company, C or S corporation? The form you select will have implications for taxes, liability, staffing and complexity. Make sure you understand all the options and implications, and choose what’s right for you. 

Products and services
While you may have an idea of what you’re going to sell, in a written business plan you’ll have to detail your offerings. How many different products/versions will you have to offer in the beginning? How is your offering going to be different/better from other things already on the market? Will you offer customization? How will you protect your intellectual property? Will you patent your ideas, or keep them trade secrets?

Market analysis
Describe the industry in which you will be working, including historical, current, and projected future size. What subsection constitutes your target market? What is the critical problem your offering is going to solve? What alternatives are they currently using?  What are their geographic and demographic characteristics? Who is your ideal customer? Are there any seasonal or cyclical purchasing patterns you’ll have to work around? What market share do you expect, and why?

Marketing plan
Once you have your product and target market, you have to get the two together. What is your marketing plan? How are those ideal customers going to find out about your offering? Will you exhibit at trade shows or conferences? Offer free trials?

Competitive intelligence
Who exactly is your competition? It could be other companies—or possibly even your own potential customers if they have the capability to devise internal solutions to the problem you aim to address? What are the strengths, weaknesses and market share of each? How important is this market to your competitors? What are barriers to entry to this market? What other offerings will present to differentiate you from the pack? What is on the horizon from other companies?

Organization and management
Who is going to run the company? What is their expertise and experience? If you are plan to hire employees, you become responsible for bringing in enough business to cover their salary, and taxes, while reporting requirements get more complicated. Depending on the number of employees you have and the state in which you are operating, various other regulations start to apply as headcount numbers increase. How will you address the various regulatory requirements?

Pricing
How much is it really going to cost to make your product or service, and how will you price it? Are you going to compete on low cost and high volume? Or high cost and high quality? Is your offering a need or a want for your customers, and will that affect what they are willing to pay?

Revenue
Will you reply on repeat customers, subscriptions, or contracts? Will you sell over the Internet or are face-to-face sales required? Will you hire your own sales force, or use distributers? Where will start-up money come from? How will you ensure enough money to cover operating expenses until substantial profits arrive? Will you seek investors? If so, how will you attract them and what will you offer them?

There are many more questions your business plan will have to answer, but if you’ve already thought about all these issues, congratulations! You are well on the way to becoming an entrepreneur. If not, you now know how to get started. For more resources, see the US Small Business Administration or SCORE for more ideas, and the new ACS Entrepreneurship Initiative (EI).

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes (lisa@balbes.com) of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists, published by Oxford University Press.

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