3 Secrets of Academic Entrepreneurs’ Success
By Kaitlin Solimine
If someone found me in the dusty stacks of Harvard’s Yenching Library fifteen years ago and told me I’d one day co-found a company, I would’ve looked up from my special collections books and laughed, “Wait, what? This nerd?” In those days, I had internalized the far-too-common idea that academics and business leaders were nothing alike. Academics were isolated from the world, poring over ancient tomes, and working on incredibly specialized research that had nothing to do with turning a profit. Entrepreneurs were disruptive, obsessed with speed, and always on the hunt for the next big payout. The two were oil and water—the phrase “academic entrepreneur” was an oxymoron. Right?
In reality, the two spheres blend better than we think. After all, a study of 60,000 academics in basic disciplines (that is, disciplines like math and psychology, not law and business) found that 16 percent of them had founded and were running their own businesses. Not to mention the fact that Google was founded by two graduate students who were, presumably, nose-deep in ancient tomes of their own at one point. Clearly, there’s something about academia that doesn’t just agree with startup culture, but enhances it.
Academics know how to push back
A well-trained academic is eminently suited to push back against the status quo because that’s the heart of academic research: disagreeing with your intellectual predecessors, questioning ancient research, and trying to uncover more and more knowledge about the way things work (sometimes literally “uncover”: hello, archeology). This tendency to push back is a natural one for entrepreneurship, too, and leads professors not just to further research, but to actual entrepreneurship. For example, let’s consider Professor Ching-Hong Yang, who started T3 Bioscience LLC in order to find a better way to solve antibiotic resistance.
The origins of T3 Bioscience LLC came out of a difficult time in his life, said Yang over the phone. Several years ago Yang’s brother called from Taiwan to say their father was sick with a drug-resistant strain of pneumonia. Each day the brother conveyed worse news, until Yang finally flew home to find his father in the ICU, suffering from a hospital-acquired pathogen that doctors tried to treat with every known antibiotic. Day after day his condition worsened—until finally, luckily, the last antibiotic worked.
That was good news, but it wasn’t good enough for Yang. The status quo—drug-resistant antibiotics and the overuse of antibiotics that leads to said drug-resistant ones—simply wasn’t good enough for him. He was (and still is) working at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, but instead of simply conducting more research through academia, he decided to form his own start-up. Thus, T3 Bioscience LLC was born. (Their fight against the overuse of antibiotics is already promising; Yang may have devised a way to remove or limit the use of antibiotics in apple and pear farming, which can create antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can then cause human disease.) Without the stance of constant questioning Yang learned from academia, he never would have founded his own business.
Aspects of Yang’s experience reflect my own, too. Before starting our business, my co-founder Anna Redmond and I were unhappy with the status quo between academics and the outside world. There seemed a vast chasm between what the general public was learning in the media and what actual academic experts had to say—and no one was doing anything about it. So we started a magazine, Hippo Reads, in order to connect the two worlds by taking academic content and making it accessible and digestible for the general public.
All this “push back against the status quo” can sound a bit idealistic (Dead Poet’s Society, anyone?) but in fact, it requires a diverse amount of connections, network, and community—and this is something academia naturally provides. For example, Yang knew fellow scientists all around the globe, and it was one of them who thought he’d be interested in meeting the former division head of NYSE Technologies, Daniel Burgin, who was hoping to get involved with something that had “a positive impact for humanity,” according to Yang. This meetup resulted in Burgin becoming Yang’s CEO.
In Hippo Reads’ case, I had practice building relationships from my days doing ethnographic research in China for my Fulbright fellowship and many academic conferences I’d attended (including Stanford’s Forum for US-China Exchange, the Australian Association of Writing Programs, and AWP), and it made bringing on great contributing academics that much easier. This may even be a perk that academic entrepreneurs have over their solopreneur compatriots—starting your own business is notoriously lonely, and the structure that academia provides can help pad the transition and forward the business at the same time.
Academics know how to hustle
Let’s be honest, the financial situation at a startup can be similar to that of academia: less than ideal. Not all startups are blessed with seven-figure angel investments, just like not all academics are blessed with tenure-track Ivy jobs. Enter: the hustle. Getting funding in the university setting for research projects is a challenge, and in that way, it’s a fitting training ground for entrepreneurship. I know that personally, my time spent studying in China taught me how to keep the lights on for cheap (and no one knows cheap better than a graduate student in the field!). That experience was then invaluable when it came to getting Hippo Reads off the ground.
For many entrepreneurs, funding can come in quite a familiar package for academics: a grant. Professor Miles Wernick, who teaches electrical and computer engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology, is also a co-founder of ADMdx, a company that has commercialized an advanced software to recognize patterns in the brain that can diagnose patients with Alzheimer’s and track the progression of the disease. Today, the company has clients like Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceutical unit, Rockefeller University, and Cleveland Clinic.
But when Wernick got into the startup world with a partner 15 years ago, their first projects were funded by federal grants. Much like research grants to universities, Wernick explained over the phone, “the government also funds companies in their early stages in hopes of making new economic activity in the U.S.”
The process for both spheres of grants is not all that different. You bury yourself in research to prove your initial idea—be it an ambitious dissertation or a new technology—is feasible, then you write up the proposal, a process that can take a couple weeks. “The main difference is that with grants for a company, the project that’s proposed has to culminate in some real-world, commercialized end point,” Wernick said. “In academia the endpoint might just answer some questions and raise new ones that are then studied in the next project.”
Raising new questions, you say? Sounds like a startup environment to me.
Academics know how to iterate
As business owners, entrepreneurs have to convince customers to buy their products. As professors and researchers, academics must convince a committee they deserve tenure (and also convince students that their lectures are worth listening to). Getting to a place where you can convince people you have what they want? That can take several iterations.
Take Adeline Koh, an associate professor at Stockton University teaching postcolonial literature, who found herself dealing with intense customer demand—not for classes, but for beauty products. As she explains in an interview for Tech.co, Koh was frustrated with products that advertised “active” ingredients while barely including any of the said compound, so she decided to make her own versions during her sabbatical.
“I did what every academic is good at doing,” Koh explained to Tech.co. “I started doing my own research on how to make skincare products, as well as reading about active ingredients in cosmetic science textbooks. Then I started practicing—first on myself.” Soon enough, her friends were demanding product after product. An online webstore was the next logical step.
This process of trial and error—often called “iterating” in the startup world—is typical in academia, and vital to the research process. In fact, you might well term academics the original pivoters: people who set out to test a hypothesis, but are willing to change their angle on a dime. We’re accustomed to reassessing the foundation of our study and poking holes in revered theories in our field. This is all excellent training for running a business.
At Hippo Reads, we pivoted. At a point along the way, we were approached by companies who also wanted to access that same academic world that we were tapping into with our magazine (which eventually evolved into an open-access blogging platform). Connecting large corporations with academics wasn’t our original plan, but when the opportunity came through, we decided to build on it.
While the start-up world will always have its college-dropout wunderkinds, it’s worth looking into the ivory tower for disruptive mavericks, too. Not only do academics have some of the globe’s most cutting-edge research at their fingertips, but they know how to hustle and they can change direction on a dime. The only thing missing is the beanbag chair/unlimited sushi bar environment . . . but we’re academics. We’re used to changing the world on a shoestring budget.