Mind Your Own Science!

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In science, business is a dirty word. In general, scientists don't care much for business, while business simply adores science. But why? Science is a world of discovery so you would think that there would be an extreme interest in entrepreneurship in the scientific community. That's simply not the case.

In science, business is a dirty word. In general, scientists don't care much for business, while business simply adores science. But why? Science is a world of discovery so you would think that there would be an extreme interest in entrepreneurship in the scientific community. That's simply not the case.

Let me start by telling you that I'm an entrepreneur, scientist and student. I co-founded and now run CrimsonBase, where we make software for genetic research. "Entrepreneur" is not a title I wave around much, since it often carries the closely related image of serial entrepreneurship, with money being the solitary goal. That's an image that is skewed by guys who start company after company, generally with an array of borrowed ideas and half-baked innovations in search of a winning lottery ticket. However, setting up a company can be a lot of fun, especially if you're good at it, so there's no fault in that line of work. It just doesn't apply to me. My aversion to it (albeit a mild one) is simply some residual prejudice against the somewhat parasitic business to science relationship. Then again, running my company is constantly on my mind, so regardless of my opinion of the title, I'm an entrepreneur, first and foremost.

My passion, as you may have guessed, is science. More specifically, I love the genetics of viruses. Being in a lab, making discoveries and tackling obstacles is my idea of fun. So why am I not there, doing those things? The simple answer is that I saw a problem, namely, crappy software, knew how to fix it and grabbed the opportunity to help all those who share my passion. I then jumped on a business course, wrote a business plan, and now, two years later, I'm selling better software. This feels incredibly good. I'm helping my fellow scientists, I'm succeeding at a big project, I have a respectable job at the age of 27, and yes, there is the prospect of a decent salary.

This brings me to wonder why I am relatively unique in my career path, particularly in times when scientific careers are more scarce. It's no surprise that investors and business people love scientists. They're smart, they're creative, they're experts in their fields, and any one of them can probably tell you at least ten things they would like to improve in their work. The world of science is bubbling with business opportunities and who better to grab them than young science students with fresh ideas? It's baffeling to see so many people "make do" with bad equipment, out-dated protocols and tedious procedures that can easily be automated.

The lack of interest was clearly illustrated last week at the C2W career expo. This event is geared toward scientists in a number of fields, including chemistry and the life sciences, who are in search of a career path. The expo was well received, and attracted over 1000 visitors. I was invited to speak about my experience as an entrepreneur in science and upon my arrival I briefly noted that the expo was busy, indeed. With 15 minutes to go before presenting, I was surprised to find that there were only three people in the lecture hall where I was to talk, one being another speaker and the other an organizer. By the end of my talk, only eight more had joined. This means that less than one percent of the career-seekers at the expo cared to hear about starting a company.

One clear reason comes to mind as to why this might be. First, the words "entrepreneurship" and "company" tend not to resonate with people in science. As someone who sells products to scientists and who used to talk to sales representatives as a lab member, I can tell you that commerce and scientists tend to clash. The cause for this is another discussion, but money is a sensitive topic and often industry is the considered the bad-guy. When it comes to providing it as a career option, entrepreneurship is simply the wrong word. I don't think a scientist has things like entrepreneurship, shares, investors and university holding companies in mind when considering what a great addition his new technique will make to the world. I most certainly didn't, and it's illustrated in my lingering hesitation to call myself an entrepreneur. Any scientist intent on cashing in on a discovery or invention is much more product-focused than business-focused, so raising awareness needs to start there, with the idea, not the means.


Making that minor change in approach and terminology could mean great gains in interest in commercializing scientific ideas. Business and science don't need to seem like opposing parties. I'm simply convinced that there are plenty of researchers with great ideas scattered around which could greatly benefit not only their fields of research, but the rest of the world. They merely need to be made aware of the possibility to do so and, so far, most attempts seem to miss the mark. If anyone should consider starting a business, it's a scientist.

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