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When I started as a postdoc at the University of Cambridge back in 2013, I knew – absolutely knew – that I would eventually become a professor. It was a done deal, there was no question. Instead, after many twists and turns, I started hatching an idea to start a business, and in 2017, I incorporated The Supplant Company.
It was a rocky journey during which we had to change strategy numerous times. But eventually, an amazing team and I turned an idea into something real. Since that time, we’ve developed multiple products, filed multiple patents, raised $27 million in funding, rolled out our first ingredient in Chef Thomas Keller’s restaurants, launched a chocolate and cookie line with Chef Keller and launched a business-to-business consumer packaged goods line in the U.S. On the back of all this, I’ve summarized some lessons learned from that very early experience and nailing down on the “sugars from fiber” idea that is the backbone of our current mission and IP. In doing so, I’ve found myself emphasizing an approach to university innovation that I think is full of opportunity for postdocs. That is, building science-based businesses on expertise acquired at universities but not on university inventions; in other words, building university startups not “spin-outs.” Here are a few lessons for academics considering a similar path:
Lesson 1: Look for opportunities outside the lab
The dictum “get out of the office” is almost cliché in startup building, but I think it’s possibly more necessary for building science-based businesses than anywhere else. In business, unlike academia, people don’t clearly outline opportunities in the pages of journals — you need to be talking and thinking. That won’t necessarily come naturally to many PhD-types, but it’s easier to teach this to a scientist than to teach a businessperson the details of a cutting-edge scientific field. For me, I wasted a lot of time at the start working out what The Supplant Company should do, until I stopped trying to fit the outside world into the science I knew and started doing the opposite.
Lesson 2: What’s academically interesting isn’t always a great foundation for a business
Why is it so important to “get out of the office?” For one, you’ll waste time trying to build things that no customers really want. That’s a risk, but to my mind it’s not the biggest missed opportunity. The biggest missed opportunity, I think, is that when scientists aren’t talking to potential customers as they formulate their ideas, they tend to over-egg the need to make their idea academically interesting. In fact, they tend to start with what’s most scientifically interesting to them (after all, from the science-first perspective, that’s what stands out) and thereby drastically constrain their perspectives.
Groundbreaking science businesses don’t need what academics would consider to be groundbreaking scientific discoveries. Indeed, things that have been discovered super recently often aren’t robust enough to roll out as a business. The big thing holding back the creation of these businesses is not a limit of scientific knowledge, but a dearth of scientists that can discover business opportunities and can translate robust science into business-ready solutions. If you have a PhD, you almost certainly have enough technical knowledge already; but as do all of your colleagues. If you can also uncover business problems and bring your technical knowledge to bear, you’ll be in select company. This is university innovation, but not the tech transfer way. If I had to pick one thing most likely to boost university innovation, I would focus on having young scientists learn this, not spending any more time with a pipette. Research councils, take note.
Lesson 3: Start the company to discover the problem, not the other way around
Understand problems up front, and don’t constrain yourself by thinking only about your latest publication or what academics think is cool. But do get things moving straight away, and work it out on the fly. Before I incorporated, I explored a lot of ways that I could “test the water” without diving in. In hindsight, this did nothing but delay the process. You start the business to work out what the business will be. You’ll have some idea of the space you’re in, of course, but you won’t ever be completely executing on a pre-proven plan. You can’t know it all in advance. Coming from an academic setting, this is particularly useful — you need to get out of academic mode and into business mode.
Lesson 4: Don’t constrain yourself to a mission too much at the outset
For me, this process resulted in a business with a strong social mission: reducing sugar in the food industry. This is no accident. I was focused on building a business for more than just commercial gain. So, how should you go about finding your big mission? Well, I don’t think you should — at least not up front. Life lessons always look clearer in retrospect, and in the heat of the moment, little does. When building a science-based business, you have to face the gargantuan problem of trying to align market needs with some science you can actually get to work. That’s hard enough without trying to further constrain it to solve one particular mission. So, don’t.
The advice I’d give to aspiring mission-driven entrepreneurs is to not fall in love with a specific important mission at the start, but to fall in love with the general idea of building a business to solve an important future mission. Just like with the rest of the business, and with science, you’ll never know up front what your investigations will uncover.