ONE Event, Three Perspectives on Optics Startups

24. October 2011

By Christina Folz

At last week’s Frontiers in Optics meeting, I attended the first meeting of OSA’s Network of Entrepreneurs (ONE), a new group intended to connect optics students and young professionals with mentors who are scientist-entrepreneurs.

This post shares advice that was given at the event on how to jump into the startup world. The speakers included Greg Quarles, president and chief operating officer of B.E. Meyers; Michelle Holoubek, director in the electronics group at the intellectual property law firm Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox; and Tom Baer, executive director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center at Stanford University, cofounder of Arcturus Bioscience Inc. and 2009 OSA President.

Like a startup, ONE is still in development. Its organizers, including Bright Futures bloggers Brooke Hester and Danny Rogers along with Armand Niederberger of Stanford, are seeking volunteers to grow the program. Please contact Brooke, Danny or Armand if you are interested in joining this new community.

Greg Quarles: How to Act Like an Entrepreneur

Have clarity. Know why you do what you do. Successful entrepreneurs have a purpose, cause or belief that exists above and beyond the products or services they sell.

Have discipline. You must understand not only what product or service you plan to offer but how you intend to do it. Business owners cannot simply demand that their team “make it so,” in the fashion of Captain Jean Luc Picard on Star Trek. They must hold themselves and their teams accountable to a defined set of guiding principles or values.

Be consistent. Everything you do and say must prove what you believe. In this sense, YOU are the product—a critical part of your own brand. The product should reflect your core values, and you should adopt a winning attitude in all areas of developing your business. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, how can others?

Michelle Holoubeck: Why Intellectual Property Matters
Intellectual property (IP) includes trade secrets, patents, copyrights and trademarks. Every fledgling entrepreneur should learn the fundamentals of IP to protect their growing business because it enables you to:

Guard your ideas and establish a competitive edge. IP is the only way that small companies can contend with larger ones on an otherwise skewed playing field. For example, when Microsoft was shown to have used XML technology that was patented by the small company i4i in one of its product releases, the software giant was ordered to pay i4i to the tune of several hundred million dollars.

Promote investments. Because funders want to protect their investments, they are unlikely to finance startups that have not developed IP safeguards.

Encourage disclosure of new ideas. Sharing exactly how a company’s products or processes work in a patent helps to drive further innovation in the marketplace, and it enables businesses and consumers to easily distinguish among different products and services.

Also keep in mind:
• Publically disclosing your invention—by describing it at a conference, for example—before filing a patent application may limit your ability to protect your invention.

• If you disclose some of your invention, you must disclose it all. You can’t keep the best components a secret.

• You don’t have to actually make an invention to patent it; you just have to describe how you would make it.

• Not everyone who works on a product is an inventor. Incorrectly attributing inventorship to someone who did not play a real role can damage your patent.

Tom Baer: Know your Market First
Contrary to popular belief, a product idea is not required to start a successful company. Here’s the process that worked for Tom:

Identify a market. A couple years ago, Tom worked with a team to develop the Stanford spinoff Auxogyn—without a specific product idea in mind. Instead, the team started by targeting the area of assisted reproduction, a market that is growing by about 20 percent per year, with about 1 in 6 couples facing infertility.

Look for people who can build your company. For Auxogyn, this included a diverse group of medical doctors, developmental biologists, engineers, imaging experts and others. Look for those with the skills you lack.

Study the market. Talk with customers and assess other businesses in your niche. How do they work? What will give your company a differentiable edge?

Find and develop your idea. As you do your homework, your idea will emerge. Once it does, create product models to show your customers and incorporate their feedback into the next version. For its product, Auxogyn ultimately decided on imaging platforms that monitor the developmental process of embryos in an incubator—allowing for the selection of the healthiest ones for in vitro fertilization.

Delay financing as long as possible. Once you have the right ideas and the right market, you can find investors. If you fail, it’s better to fail early—before you’ve invested significant time and funding into product development and pilot production.

Christina Folz ( is OPN’s editor and content director.


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At FiO and Other Scientific Meetings, Networking Is a Key Career Move

14. October 2010

By Stephen Roberson

This post was republished with the kind permission of the author, Stephen Roberson, from his Frontiers in Optics blog.

Everywhere I look, people are talking about jobs. There is a good article in the October issue of Optics and Photonics News talking about post-Ph.D careers, in which young scientists discuss many possible career paths after graduate school. Another editorial in the same magazine talks about thinking outside of academia in your job search. 

I’ve noticed at conferences that many people only attend the talks and don’t go to other events like socials and mixers. What many new scientists don’t realize is that these gatherings are where people offer opportunities--and not at your brilliant talk. Yes, everyone’s talk is brilliant on some level, but the socials and mixers are where you have the opportunity to distinguish yourself as more than a good presenter. At OSA's annual Frontiers in Optics meeting, make sure to take advantage of all the opportunities to meet and greet people in the industry and in academia. 

Let people get to know you and get to know them in return. I’ve found that networking is not something that comes to a scientist naturally; usually we’re in labs by ourselves working alone. You have to work at it. Get out and meet people and get to know them in a professional and personal manner. Also, I’ve noticed that when scientists get together, they often engage in an “Are you smarter than I am?” contest. Don’t do that! Many of the people scientists will work for may not be more intelligent than them, but you don’t want to belittle the person that would hire you and authorize your paychecks. 

There are all sorts of strategies and books for getting jobs, and all of those sources have their pluses and minuses. But nothing can really relate to being on the radar of someone who is looking to hire a scientist like you because you met him or her personally. As a researcher at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, I know they get tons of applications from really smart people that are just tossed because nobody knows them. 

So get out there, press some flesh, and introduce yourself to the world.

Stephen Roberson is a research scientist at the Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Md., U.S.A.


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