Jonathan Fisher doesn’t mince words when he talks about the early days of Neurovision, the company he founded in 2013. “When you start your own business, you wear so many hats. It’s really such a saga.”
Fisher, along with more than a dozen of his peers in the Blavatnik Awards community, is more than a scientist and innovator— he is an entrepreneur. For many of these scientists, the process of turning an idea into a company has pushed them beyond their comfort zones, forcing them to stretch their time, energy and talent in ways they never envisioned and develop skill sets previously untapped. Without hesitation, they claim the effort is well worth it.
Some have been in the game for a decade or more. Others are enjoying the early rush of hiring staff and putting venture dollars to work while bringing a dream to market. And while the entrepreneurs among this elite group of young scientists are at different points along the path, similar experiences have surprised and humbled them all.
It never takes more than three minutes for the topic of time management to surface when discussing the early days of an entrepreneurial venture with a person juggling a full-time teaching position and a research agenda. Geoffrey Coates is co-founder of Novomer, a company that uses proprietary catalysts to polymerize carbon dioxide with organic small molecules, resulting in sustainable plastics that are as much as 50 percent carbon dioxide. In the early days of the company, Coates recalls, “I had obligations in Ithaca on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but had to go to California for a meeting (for Novomer). I left Tuesday at 6am, got to California at noon, had meetings through dinner, then took the redeye home. I probably wasn’t as productive as normal on Wednesday morning, but that’s the kind of craziness we had in the beginning.” Coates and his colleagues pushed on, motivated by what they felt was breakthrough science that had the potential to be of great benefit to society, both from an environmental as well as a performance standpoint. “Since large chemical companies seemed to have little interest in such early stage technology, we felt we had nothing to lose,” Coates says. “It wasn’t easy, but it was exciting.”
Marin Soljačić is co-founder of WiTricity, a company that creates wireless power transfer systems for automobiles and consumer electronics applications and counts Intel, Toyota and battery-charger manufacturer CTEK among its partners. He freely admits that starting WiTricity was at least as challenging as his teaching load at MIT.
“Being a professor and doing research isn’t easy, and neither is starting your own company. Doing just one of these things is very difficult, much less both at the same time.”
— Marin Soljačić, 2014 National Laureate, Founder of WiTricity
Samie Jaffrey has started two companies, and emphasizes that “highly motivated postdocs” play a key role in sharing the workload necessary to realize new businesses. Lucerna, which Jaffrey co-founded in 2010, is led by a former postdoc who helped develop the company’s core technology—a platform that allows for visualization of RNA, offering researchers the opportunity to test drug compounds against abnormalities in RNA localization. “Often, the people in the lab know so much about the tips and tricks and techniques for studying these things—it’s something no company could ever do,” Jaffrey says. He also believes that an understanding of the scientific process is especially helpful when it comes to entrepreneurship.
“The process of starting a business is a natural progression not unlike what we do in the lab; it just goes in a very different direction.” -
—Samie Jaffrey, 2013 Blavatnik Regional Award Winner, Co-founder of Lucerna, Inc. & Base5 Biosciences
At this point, the juggling act is over—conflict of interest rules prevent these faculty members from holding anything more than Board or consultant roles in these businesses now. For many, the realization that they must hand off the founding work to others was a bittersweet mix of sadness and relief. As Adam Cohen summed it up, “for the company to grow, I needed to become superfluous. I don’t scale.”
Issues of scale are front and center when moving a highly complex technology, like the one underlying Cohen’s company, Q-State Biosciences, from lab to market. Using proteins engineered to convert electrical impulses into light, Cohen and his team devised a method for illuminating the path of neurons as they fire, providing an unprecedented view of electrical changes through an entire nerve cell without probes or electrodes. Cohen soon realized that ruggedization and industrialization of processes that worked well on a small scale in his lab would take enormous effort. “In the lab, we just need one way for something to work,” he said. “When you scale up, you realize how many ways something can break.” It’s a hurdle Cohen and his team managed to jump—today, Q-State is working on projects with many major pharmaceutical companies, and is fine-tuning their techniques to expand their work beyond the petri dish.
Most entrepreneurs report that at some point in the process, the reality of what it takes to get a business off the ground—from planning and pitching investors to negotiating agreements and marketing— seems overwhelming. The path can be eased by assembling what Soljačić believes is the most essential thing for a startup venture: the right team. “People get the impression that it’s almost entirely about the technology, and it’s not. It’s at least as much about the people—that’s what makes a startup succeed. It comes down to whether or not you can rally a critical mass of talent.”
With the right group in place, the handoff can be remarkably rewarding, as Geoffrey Coates learned when Novomer became the first company to commercialize a polymer made from waste carbon dioxide in 2013. Reflecting on how far Novomer scientists have pushed the work that started as a “crazy idea” in his lab, Coates says, “we were the seed but they are the tree—they really made it grow.”
The Real Reasons
The impetus for starting a business can range from the urge to give back to community— as Sreekanth Chalasani’s business, Indigenèse Biotechnologies, does in his native India— to a lab result that takes everyone by surprise, as in the case of Howard Chang’s company, Epinomics.
While discussing the direction for an experiment with a graduate student in his lab, Chang realized that a small tweak could yield a tool for obtaining epigenomic information—the “software” programming layer of our genome responsible for the activity of genes within the DNA. “We needed to flesh out the technology, but we knew immediately that it could be transformative and had commercial potential,” Chang says, explaining that epigenomic information is crucial for the development of personalized medicine and may revolutionize the drug discovery process. With support from the StartX business accelerator at Stanford, Chang pulled a business team together, and Epinomics was founded less than a year later.
For Chalasani, his goal was, and remains, social entrepreneurship. Since its founding in 2006, Indigenèse has run molecular biology labs in Hyderabad, filling a void in a region where scientific services are in high demand and low supply. Hyderabad is a large city, and Chalasani’s labs provide services and produce and sell reagents that allow colleges to run lab classes, companies to test seeds, and labs to diagnose medical conditions. The proceeds fund the work that’s most important to Chalasani— bringing science to local students who would otherwise have little or no opportunity for such exposure. The lab runs educational programs that have trained more than 900 students— nearly 300 of them are now working in the biotechnology industry.
Jonathan Fisher has a similar mission. Neurovision’s major product, Neurodome, is software that converts real data from neuroimaging and CT scans to a film format compatible with planetarium dome software. “We create real-time, immersive tours of the brain,” Fisher explained. “It’s really hard to get the public excited about the brain by showing them flat images, so we take them through three-dimensional images of the brain instead. Trust me, they get excited.”
Howard Chang, along with many others in the Blavatnik community, believes that becoming an entrepreneur has deeply affected his role as scientist and teacher. “I’ve seen that some of the most valuable things I can teach my students are life skills,” he says. “The way we train scientists right now doesn’t encompass things like public speaking or understanding business plans, and those aspects are so important.”
Despite their different pursuits, all of these entrepreneurs share the common goals at the root of scientific inquiry: to solve problems, improve life, inspire wonder. Chalasani says these are the real reasons for his work. “The day I can’t help a student, we will shut the lab. The day it’s all about money, same thing. I’ll close the doors.”