Pursuing Science in South Africa

19. June 2014

Yaseera Ismail

I have worked and studied at South African universities since beginning my undergraduate degree. I started my research career at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which is one of 10 national research facilities, and I am currently based in the Quantum Research Group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). Here, I will reflect on some of my experiences studying in South Africa.

Freedom of choice

One benefit of attending university in South Africa is the unique structure of the degree system. The arrangement is unusual in that there are four exit points during the completion of three degrees. We start off with a three-year Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree, followed by a year of honors studies. The masters and doctoral degrees begin after the honors year. If you are not pursuing a career in research, you have the option of completing your education after earning a B.Sc. This allows students to tailor our honors year material to the research area we wish to pursue during our M.Sc. and Ph.D., and so we are more prepared and focused when beginning those higher-level degrees.

Availability of resources and funding

South Africa has a growing scientific community, but the opportunities for collaboration and networking are still limited. This can impact the level of research and the growth of facilities taking place in the country. If you are trying to build a research group, it may take more effort and time than other places. However, the lack of certain resources encourages us to look elsewhere for necessary expertise. This helps us build relationships with researchers across the globe. There is also funding available to promote and host national and international conferences, and there are extensive online resources to help fill any gaps.

A prerequisite for registering for a M.Sc. or Ph.D. degree at any South African university is a source of funding for the duration of your studies. Most candidates are awarded a scholarship either by the Department of Science and Technology, the National Research Foundation or national facilities such as the CSIR. The South African government recently set a target of spending 1.5 percent of its budget on research and development by 2018. Funding is also provided by universities such as UKZN, which has its own scholarship program.

Networking opportunities

I have been fortunate enough to attend 22 academic conferences since completing my M.Sc. Conferences are excellent platforms to grow within your field and expand your network of colleagues and friends. There is one major national physics conference in South Africa, known as the South African Institute of Physics Conference. It is hosted annually by various institutes and is currently in its 59th year. My research group also hosts the Quantum Information Processing Communication and Control (QIPCC) Conference each year. This meeting is focused on quantum optics and information science, and is an initiative of the South African Research Chair for Quantum Information Processing and Communication.

Joining professional associations is also a great way to network, and there are several options in South Africa. The South African Institute of Physics is a prominent association for researchers. It has student memberships and provides discounts for student conferences. There are also three OSA Student Chapters: Durban, Pretoria and Stellenbosch. I am part of the newly formed Student Chapter at the UKZN, Durban. Since we joined OSA, we have had numerous avenues opened to us. I recently attended an IONS conference in Montreal, Canada, which was a wonderful experience for me and gave me lots of ideas for growing our Chapter at UKZN.

As a South African student, networking opportunities and the increasing availability of resources have played a major role in expanding my opportunities as a young researcher. I am happy to be contributing to the developing community of scientists in my country.

Yaseera Ismail completed her masters at the CSIR-National Laser Centre in Pretoria, South Africa, where her research focused on novel laser beam shaping for optical trapping and tweezing. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in quantum communication within the Quantum Research Group based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.

Academic Careers, Career Path, Conferences, Graduate School, International Careers, OSA Student Chapters, Ph.D. Perspectives , , , , , , ,

Learning by Teaching

13. January 2014

Takayuki Umakoshi

The people in my family are not very familiar with science. I sometimes wish that I could discuss my work with them, but it is not easy to explain my research to people without a scientific background. This is just one of the many instances in which we as scientists need to communicate our work to people without extensive scientific knowledge. Communication skills are crucial to your success—for example, when applying for government funding for your research. Even if you get tremendous results, they won’t have an impact if you cannot explain them properly and make their significance understood.

Engaging children with science
My OSA/SPIE student chapter at Osaka University, Japan, recently held an outreach activity called “Super HIKARIJUKU.” During this annual event, we invite about 50 elementary school students to our campus and showed them how fascinating science can be through optics-related experiments. This year I served as a student chair, and the event was very successful. The kids had a great time and learned a lot about light. After helping to organize the event, I realized that discussing science with children taught me some important lessons about how to communicate scientific topics with non-scientific people.

Communicating successfully
In order to get our message across to the students, we had to do a lot of research. We asked parents and teachers what the children already knew, so we were aware of their level of scientific knowledge. We also found out about the latest popular cartoon characters, so that we could use fun images and concepts that children already recognize and enjoy to engage them even further. Practicing and testing our demonstrations was also very important—we showed the experiments to non-scientific people so that they could give us advice on the best way to make ourselves understood and to get kids excited about the subject matter. It took quite a bit of planning and effort, but we ended up with a really good set of experiments. Our thoughtful, hands-on demonstrations allowed us to explain complex concepts to children who might not have understood them otherwise.

Applying these skills
The communication skills that we learned by working with children are also applicable to adults outside of our very specific fields. I discovered that you need to be able to break down complicated ideas into simple, understandable pieces so that they can be useful to a wider audience. Think about what language will be most comprehensible and interesting to your listeners. Where possible, hands-on demonstrations are extremely helpful and can make seemingly abstract concepts much more engaging. If you are capable of making your research easier to understand, then it will be much easier to communicate its importance. Through my work with OSA, I realized that outreach activities like these are not only informational for our audiences, but also teach us how to communicate effectively. Teaching is learning.
Takayuki Umakoshi (umakoshi@ap.eng.osaka-u.ac.jp) is a Ph.D. student at Osaka University, Japan, and president of the Osaka University OSA/SPIE student chapter. For more information, please check out his website: https://sites.google.com/site/takayukiumakoshiwebsites/.

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Networking through Student Conferences

20. August 2013

Shota Ushiba

We are often told about the importance of networking for furthering our careers. However, it’s not always easy for students to build these relationships, particularly as they are first starting out in their fields. In order to facilitate the creation of useful connections, the Osaka University OSA/SPIE Student Chapter, where I serve as the president, hosted an international student conference. The Asia Student Photonics Conference 2013 took place from 24-26 July at the Photonics Centre in Osaka University, Japan.
Organizing Logistics
The conference was financially supported by OSA, SPIE and other organizations. We aimed to build networks among Asian students and young researchers in the fields of optics and photonics, and to learn why networking is important, how we can create networks and what we can do with the networks. We were thrilled that more than 70 students from China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, India and Japan attended this year. It was the largest student conference we have ever hosted.
Making Connections
We conducted a variety of activities, with invited lecture sessions as a focal point. There were five guest speakers: Satoshi Kawata, Osaka University; Michael Alley, Pennsylvania State University; Prabhat Verma, Osaka University; Rinto Nakahara, President of Nanophoton Corp.and Junichiro Kono, Rice University. The speakers covered relevant career topics, including how to expand your network as a young scientist, how to communicate effectively through writing and presentations, and developing management skills. The speakers gave us clear, pragmatic answers to the issues we faced.
We also had student oral and poster presentations, group work, a social excursion and numerous coffee breaks and banquets. There was plenty of time for attendees to talk freely, which enabled us to get to know each other well. We made connections and bridged the cultural gaps between countries. I believe that these new relationships will pave the way for future research collaborations.
Becoming a Leader
My personal experience as the conference organizer was particularly enlightening and fulfilling. I arranged everything along with my colleagues, including funds, invited lecturers and student attendees. Students rarely get the opportunity to take on this kind of responsibility; it was great experience and practice for later on in my career. Throughout the three days of activities, we were thanked hundreds of times by the attendees; it was one of the most gratifying experiences that I have ever had. Our conference even inspired some of the student attendees to organize the next student conference, which will make our network wider and stronger. This sense of gratitude and shared responsibility is a great way to build up your community.
My work as the organizer of a student conference helped me to develop many abilities that I don’t often get the chance to hone. Although I sometimes struggled from taking on too many duties and had small conflicts with my colleagues over details, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I strongly recommend that you take the initiative to organize a similar event if you have the opportunity. It will broaden your perspective along with your network.
Shota Ushiba (ushiba@ap.eng.osaka-u.ac.jp) is a Ph.D. student in the Kawata Lab at Osaka University, Japan, and president of the Osaka Univ. OSA/SPIE Student Chapter. Check out his website or find him on Facebook.

Academic Careers, Career Path, Communication Skills, Conferences, Graduate School, OSA Student Chapters, Ph.D. Perspectives , , , , , , , ,

The Career Uncertainty Principle

2. July 2013
Rocío Borrego-Varillas 
In physics, the uncertainty principle states that we cannot precisely measure the position and momentum of a subatomic particle at the same time. Many students approaching the completion of their Ph.D. experience a unique career-related variation of this principle: The closer they get to graduation, the more difficult it is to make plans for the future.
Although it’s exciting to complete your degree, facing a new professional stage can be stressful.  You can minimize this anxiety by planning early and developing the skills you’ll need to reach your long-term goals. Certain abilities are valuable regardless of whether you want to pursue a career in academia or in industry. These “transferable skills” include networking, communication and fund management. 
There are many ways to develop your transferable skills. In fact, some doctoral programs even include specialized courses on these proficiencies. Here are some of my suggestions:
Develop your oral communication skills. You can find many resources on the Internet. I especially like “English communication for scientists,” a free tool from Nature Education with tutorials on topics ranging from giving conference presentations to preparing lectures. Many conferences also provide very helpful seminars on scientific communication (for example, Jean-luc Doumont’s video and OPN article on “Creating Effective Slides”).
Become a better writer. Although we have many day-to-day writing obligations for school or work, it is a good idea to build your non-technical writing skills as well. There are a wide variety of outlets where you can practice: write for a blog, local newspaper, magazine or outreach book (like “El laser, la luz de nuestro tiempo”). For example, you can write for Optics & Photonics News (OPN), the membership magazine of The Optical Society; OPFocus, an independent magazine reviewing important recent developments in the fields of optics and photonics; and of course OPN’s Bright Futures career blog! 
Create a network. Student-oriented conferences such as the IONS meetings offer a great chance to build a professional network and meet colleagues. Conferences and technical meetings in general will help you to learn about different subject areas and introduce you to potential employers. Many offer professional development events, such as presentations by journal editors or meetings with entrepreneurs, which provide insight into different professions and the qualifications they require.
Learn fund raising and grant management. A good way to practice is to help your supervisor with his or her proposal by writing the paragraphs corresponding to your project description. Another good opportunity to get experience in this realm is through an OSA student chapter, as you will often file activity grants applications and raise funds to support chapter events. 
My advice for those of you running up against your “uncertainty principle” is to make it work in your favor—by keeping as many doors open as possible and learning as you go. With so many exciting possibilities to explore, perhaps certainty is overrated.
Rocío Borrego-Varillas (rborrego@uji.es) received her Ph.D. from the University of Salamanca, Spain. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Universitat Jaume I, Spain, and has been recently awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship to conduct her research at the Politecnico di Milano, Italy.

Academic Careers, Career Path, Communication Skills, Conferences, Graduate School, Job Search, OSA Student Chapters, Postdocs , , , , , , , ,

Making the Most of Your Ph.D. Experience in a Developing Country

9. April 2013

Angela Dudley

I like being different. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to pursue a career in physics is that there are very few scientists in South Africa, and even fewer female scientists. My thinking was that fewer people in the game meant less competition and more opportunities. Each year, there are only about 23 Ph.D. graduates produced per million South African citizens (and this encompasses all academic disciplines, not just the sciences.) Here, I provide a few tips for getting your Ph.D. in a country where high-level degrees are not the norm.  

Find a dynamic mentor.
At the end of my undergraduate studies, I chose the topic of my research project based not only on my interests, but also on the potential supervisors with whom it would put me in contact. Having a helpful ally is important for any graduate student, but even more so for those in a country that has fewer resources available for Ph.D. students. I had a checklist for the mentor I wanted. He or she needed to be:

• Available and approachable
• Able to provide me with the opportunity to attend and present at conferences (even if they were only local ones)
• Good at sourcing funding, and
• Well-connected in the South African science community.

While on vacation from university, I got a short-term position at the CSIR’s National Laser Centre that enabled me to test the waters for future opportunities. This was the ideal interview process: I got to see if I enjoyed the environment and the research, and my future Ph.D. supervisor was able to assess if I was a good fit for the group.

During this time, I saw that my mentor was ambitious and dynamic. He had an impeccable track record at securing funding and many local and international contacts. I could tell that, if I wanted to distinguish myself in my field, he could teach me how to do exactly that.

Be proactive. 
Where networks don’t exist, you must create them. Our student body formed local OSA and SPIE student chapters, which opened up many opportunities for me and other students, including travel grants, funds to bring in world-renowned lecturers, the possibility of hosting our own student conference (IONS) and discounts on publications. The OSA Recent Graduates program will also provide you with volunteer opportunities, so that you can gain experience and showcase your potential to science and business leaders from around the world.

Return the favor.
Admittedly, I pursued this field in part because I knew I would be a minority. But I hope this will not always be the case. I would like to encourage young people in South Africa and other developing nations to take advantage of the opportunities in the sciences and use their influence to help others along the same path. I intend to give back to the community by becoming as effective a teacher as my mentors have been for me.

Angela Dudley (ADudley@csir.co.za) conducted her Ph.D. research at the CSIR National Laser Centre based in Pretoria, South Africa. She received her Ph.D. in June 2012 from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and subsequently commenced her current position of Postdoctoral Fellow within the Mathematical Optics group at the CSIR National Laser Centre.

Academic Careers, Career Path, Graduate School, International Careers, OSA Student Chapters, Ph.D. Perspectives, Women in Science , , , , , ,

Reflections on an Optics Education

20. July 2012

Danuta Bukowska

My path to a career in optics has been an adventure. Although I have only worked in the field for four years, I have learned a lot in that time and come to love this branch of physics. Before I started my Ph.D. studies, my background in optics was fairly limited. Fortunately, my advisor didn’t view that as a problem. He was looking for students who were passionate, hard-working, curious and ready to take on challenges. As surprising as it may seem, you don’t have to be a specialist in the field when you begin your Ph.D.

In a team environment, people can do the work that best suits their tastes and strengths. That is one of the reasons why joining the Optical Biomedical Imaging Group at Nicolaus Copernicus University was such a wonderful choice for me. My colleagues are not only talented and helpful; they have also become good friends. There is always someone available to discuss difficulties in the lab or problems with theoretical work.

No one is expected to do everything. For example, I’ve never had much patience for writing long mathematical formulas or doing computer simulations, so someone else takes on that role in the lab. With this division of labor, work gets done faster and more effectively. The team shares work, knowledge, problems and our different perceptions of optics.

But getting your Ph.D in optics is about more than just working in a lab. In the past four years, I have attended eight conferences, mostly in the United States. I have written grant applications and publications and collaborated with scientists from institutions in Poland and abroad. I am also involved with the Nicolaus Copernicus University SPIE Student Chapter, which inspired me to establish an OSA Student Chapter two years ago. 

I have gotten a lot of personal satisfaction from my student chapter activities. Working with children as part of our outreach activities has been a special joy; I enjoy their curiosity and sense of wonder. The chapter has also given me the opportunity to meet fantastic people from all around the world. Because we live in an international optics community, networking can lead you to find collaborators from many other places. For example, I helped to organize the international OPTO Meeting for Young Researchers in Torun in cooperation with people from Romania, Russia and Ukraine.

After four years, I have a solid knowledge of optics. I’m experienced in working in the lab, presenting my research in front of a global audience, educating children in science, organizing international optics meetings, and writing grant applications. My experiences in the field have prepared me to face new challenges and live up to the demands and expectations of the world after graduate school. I look forward to my next big adventure!

Danuta Bukowska (danbu@fizyka.umk.pl) is a Ph.D. student at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland. She belongs to Optical Biomedical Imaging Group guided by Maciej Wojtkowski. Her research interests include optical coherence tomography and laser spectroscopy applied to biomedical imaging. 


Academic Careers, Career Path, Conferences, Graduate School, OSA Student Chapters, Ph.D. Perspectives, Women in Science , , , ,

Launching Your Science Career in a Developing Country

11. July 2012

Diana Antonosyan

Albert Einstein once said that, “Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.” This perfectly describes the predicament of working in science in a developing country. As I began my career in Armenia, I was excited and passionate about physics. But when I started my own research, I was forced to confront the catastrophic lack of money for scientific research typical in emerging nations.

A serious obstacle
Early-career scientists sometimes don’t prioritize their salary and instead do research for the love of it. However, even if one doesn’t expect or need to make much money, there are still obstacles to overcome. These include limited access to scientific journals, a lack of modern technologies in laboratories, and the inability to present one’s results at major conferences because of insufficient funds. All of these barriers exclude young and talented researchers from the international scientific community and impede their progress. As a result, these scientists may become uncompetitive or leave the field.

Finding support and solutions
So what is one to do? There are a number of ways to overcome these problems. My solution was to leave my country and continue my work in one of the leading universities in the world, where there was better funding. But I did many other things before I made this decision. I realized that attendance at conferences was a very important prerequisite to becoming a competitive scientist, so I started to look for conference funding.

I recommend that all aspiring researchers join their local OSA and SPIE student chapters. This is an excellent first step that links you with the international scientific community. There are many benefits from membership, from notifications about conferences, to discounts and even travel grants for attendance. Another possibility is obtaining international funds that support early career students, particularly from developing countries. You can also find support at home. There are non-profit groups with funds available and professional organizations at most universities that support talented young students.

The importance of making contacts
My main advice is to talk to people. At conferences you should make an effort to connect with professors and other scholars. This can sometimes seem difficult. You may feel shy because of language barriers, afraid to ask a silly question, or nervous about being rejected by famous or experienced scientists. However, you need to forget these fears in order to be successful. Be prepared, goal-oriented, active and confident. As a result, you may get good advice or even an invitation from a leading group in your field to continue your research, as happened to me.

All of this demands effort: outstanding results in research, the ability to write well to present projects, and excellent communication skills to interact with potential sponsors. If you are seeking a career in science, you have to work hard to develop these personal traits.

The hard truth is that success won’t wait for you and won’t be given to you.  You will only find it by having big dreams and working hard and persistently to make them come true, regardless of where you start your career.

Diana Antonosyan (dantonosyan@gmail.com) received her Master’s degree from Yerevan state University in 2008. She was awarded “The Best Female Student Prix of 2010” from the Republic of Armenia President in the IT sphere. She is currently doing her Ph.D. research in nonlinear optics and quantum information technologies at NLPC, RSPE, the Australian National University.

Academic Careers, Career Path, Communication Skills, Conferences, Graduate School, International Careers, OSA Student Chapters , , ,

How to Start an OSA Student Chapter

18. April 2012

by Ben Franta

An OSA student chapter can provide a great avenue for developing your leadership skills and cultivating professional connections, both within and outside your university. 

If you don’t have a chapter at your college or university, this post explains how you can establish one. The idea of forming a student organization from scratch can be daunting, but don’t worry. With the right approach, it can be a great experience and a lot of fun. While founding our own student chapter at Harvard, we learned how important it is to have a clear plan of action from the outset:

Gather a group of cofounders. Even if you feel you can do everything yourself, don’t! Gather a small group of students who are dedicated to the success of the project. Not only do many hands make light work, but building a leadership team early will make your chapter more resilient down the road.

Find one or more faculty advisors. Although your organization will be run by and for students, it pays dividends to find at least one faculty member who is willing to be associated with it in an official way. A faculty endorsement sends a message that your chapter represents a serious effort that is worthy of support. Furthermore, your faculty advisor can make use of official channels of communication within your university on behalf of your group.

Plan a series of events and create a budget. You need a schedule of activities to obtain funding, but it can be difficult to plan events without knowing how much funding you’ll have. Don’t get stuck here! Sit down with your group of cofounders and identify potential funding sources. These might include your school or university, your department, student activities funds or other professional societies. Estimate the amount you can reasonably request from each source, and use that budget to plan a series of events (with dates) for the coming term. Be ambitious but realistic. Remember that the best events for a young chapter are those that have wide appeal and build student membership. 

Register your chapter and open a funds account. Now it’s time to make your chapter official.  Register your group with OSA as well as with your school or department. Ask someone within your institution to help you create an account for your chapter funds, whether it’s through the university itself or an external bank. They should also help you to conform to any rules or regulations pertaining to student organizations at your university.

Make funding proposals. Propose your coming schedule of events and budget to each potential source of funding.  Clearly lay out how much you’re requesting, when the funds will be used, and what they will be used for. Work with each source to address its questions and accommodate its requests. Remember: building long-term working relationships with funding sources is more important than simply obtaining as much funding as possible right away.

Finalize your events schedule and ramp up advertising. Once you know your level of funding, modify your plan of activities and finalize your schedule. At this point, it’s essential to reach out to students and faculty to raise awareness of your chapter and its coming activities. Fire on all cylinders: email, websites, posters, word of mouth, and anything else you can think of. Your goal is to gain momentum.

Ensure sustainability. Congratulations—you’ve got your OSA student chapter up and running! But how do you ensure it lasts long after you’ve gone? If you build a deep and flexible leadership team, generate enthusiasm and involvement from student members, and work to grow your chapter into a vibrant community of friends and collaborators, your chapter will take on a life of its own.

Hopefully this article helps to demystify the process of starting your own OSA student chapter. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me. Good luck and have fun!

Ben Franta (bafranta@fas.harvard.edu) is a graduate student studying applied physics at Harvard University and the president of Harvard’s OSA student chapter.

Career Path, Communication Skills, Graduate School, OSA Student Chapters , , ,

Taking It as It Comes: My Unexpected Path to Career Satisfaction

11. January 2012

by Jemellie Houston

I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland working on a Ph.D. in chemical physics, and I had a plan: I would finish my Ph.D. and then do a postdoc before starting a career in research. At the time, I was working on the high-speed generation of entangled photons with the quantum cryptography laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. I adhered to my path religiously and went the extra mile through my involvement in extracurricular activities. For example, I was an OSA student chapter president and IONS North America organizer. And then … life got in the way.

Forks in the road

I went through several life-altering circumstances, including losing my mother and getting engaged and married. I became aware that my career was now part of a bigger picture that included my life with my husband, who was also pursuing a Ph.D. in addition to doing his full-time job. I also found myself surrounded by postdocs and recent Ph.D. graduates who were unable to find permanent positions. Between the economy and the scarcity of full-time positions, I decided it would be more practical for me to obtain my master’s degree and gain some real-world experience rather than complete my Ph.D.

It was a very difficult decision for me. I struggled because I felt like I was digressing from THE path, like a black sheep that had lost its way. Until then, I had only known of one way in which a scientific career could progress.

A path beyond academia

Immediately after finishing my M.S., I found employment at Mettler-Toledo, Autochem Inc.—a division of Mettler-Toledo that makes precision instrumentation for spectroscopy and other optical measurement equipment. I applied for a software test engineer position.

During the interview process for the engineering position, my potential employers deliberated about whether or not I would be a better fit for a position on their research and development team, since I had a solid research background. In the end, I got the engineering position, and in hindsight I am fortunate to have been given the opportunity to strengthen my skills in electrical and computer engineering.

I have now been with the company for more than three months. In anticipation of a product line launch in a couple of years, I am again being encouraged to join a research and development team. I am thinking about this and figuring out my next move. I like what I do now, but I am open to other opportunities as well.

One of the perks of my job is that my company will pay for my classes if I pursue another scholastic degree. I plan to take advantage of this opportunity as well in the next academic year.

Learning to adapt

The moral of my story is that opportunities arise unexpectedly in places that may be unfamiliar to us. We shouldn’t have a rigid mindset about how to get where we want; we also need to open our minds to other perfectly good opportunities. This not only opens doors for your career but also gives you a chance to learn more about yourself.  Although I am not a gambler by nature, I am glad I took a risk. If I hadn’t, I would not likely be as happy as I am right now. I like where I am and where I am headed.

Jemellie Houston (Jemellie.Houston@mt.com) is a software test engineer at Mettler-Toledo AutoChem Inc. in Columbia, Md., U.S.A.


Career Path, Graduate School, OSA Student Chapters, Profiles, Women in Science , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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 (cfolz@osa.org) is OPN’s editor and content director.


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