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When I started as a postdoctoral fellow at Cambridge University in 2013, I knew – I knew absolutely – that I would eventually become a professor. It was a deal made, there was no doubt. Instead, after many twists and turns, I started hatching an idea to start a business and in 2017 I joined The Supplant Company.
It was a difficult journey during which we had to change strategy many times. But in the end, an amazing team and I turned an idea into something real. Since then, we have developed several products, filed several patents, raised $ 27 million in funding, launched our first ingredient at Chef Thomas Keller’s restaurants, launched a line of chocolate and cookies with Chef Keller and we have launched a consumer from company to company. Packaged product line in the US On the back of all this, I have summarized some lessons learned from that early experience and concretized the idea of the “fiber sugars” that is the backbone of our current mission and IP . In doing so, I have found myself emphasizing an approach to university innovation that I believe is full of opportunities for postdoctoral fellowships. That is, to build science-based companies from knowledge acquired in universities but not from university inventions; that is, building non-spin-out college startups. Here are some lessons for academics who consider a similar path:
Lesson 1: Look for opportunities outside the lab
The saying “get out of the office” is almost a cliché in business start-ups, but I think it’s possibly more necessary to start science-based businesses than anywhere else. In business, unlike academia, people don’t clearly describe the opportunities on the pages of magazines: you have to be talking and thinking. This will not necessarily be natural for many types of doctorates, but it is easier to teach this to a scientist than to teach an entrepreneur the details of a cutting-edge scientific field. For me, I wasted a lot of time starting out working on what The Supplant Company had to do, until I stopped trying to fit the outside world into the science I knew and started doing the opposite.
Related: The role of academia in the world of startups
Lesson 2: What is academically interesting is not always a good foundation for a company
Why is it so important to “get out of the office?” On the one hand, you will waste time trying to build things that no customer really wants. That’s a risk, but in my opinion it’s not the biggest missed opportunity. I think the biggest missed opportunity is that when scientists don’t talk to potential clients while formulating their ideas, they tend to exaggerate the need to make their idea academically interesting. In fact, they usually start with what interests them scientifically (after all, from the perspective of science first, that’s what stands out) and therefore drastically restrict their perspectives.
Innovative science companies do not need what academics would consider innovative scientific discoveries. In fact, things that have been discovered recently are often not robust enough to unfold as a business. What is holding back the creation of these companies is not a limit of scientific knowledge, but a lack of scientists who can discover business opportunities and who can translate a solid science into solutions prepared for the company. If you have a PhD, you almost certainly already have enough technical knowledge; but like all your peers. If you can also discover business problems and apply your technical knowledge, you will be in a selected company. This is college innovation, but not technology transfer. If I had to pick something more likely to drive college innovation, I would focus on getting young scientists to learn this, without spending more time with a pipette. Research tips, take note.
Related: How to make sure there is a market for your business idea
Lesson 3: Start the company to discover the problem, not the other way around
Understand the issues in advance and don’t limit yourself to just thinking about your latest post or what academics think is fantastic. But do get things started right away and work it out on the fly. Before I got involved, I explored many ways to “test the water” without diving. In retrospect, this only delayed the process. Start the business to find out what the business will be like. Of course, you will have an idea of the space you are in, but you will never be fully executing a previously tested plan. You can’t know everything in advance. Coming from an academic environment, this is especially useful: you need to get out of academic mode and move into business mode.
Lesson 4: Don’t limit yourself too much to a mission at first
For me, this process resulted in a business with a strong social mission: to reduce sugar in the food industry. This is not an accident. I focused on building a business for more than a commercial profit. So how do you go about finding your great mission? Well, I don’t think you should, at least not up front. Life lessons are always seen more clearly in retrospect, and in the heat of the moment, they do little. When you create a science-based business, you have to face the huge problem of trying to align the needs of the market with a little bit of science that you can really get to work with. This is difficult enough without trying to further limit it to solve a particular mission. So no.
The advice I would give to aspiring entrepreneurs with a mission is not to fall in love with a specific important mission in the beginning, but to fall in love with the general idea of building a business to solve an important future mission. As with the rest of the business, and with science, you will never know in advance what your research will uncover.