The entrepreneurial spirit is vital for science, says Diana Cai.
Contributor Diana Cai
From stories I have read (here, here, here, and here are just a few examples) and conversations I have heard, views of entrepreneurship within the scientific community at large have changed drastically since the mid-1970s. Before that time, entrepreneurship seemed to be spoken in a positive light by only a few scientists in hushed voices. To most in the community, entrepreneurship seemed to be incompatible with science. Science was associated with unbiased truth-seeking and healthy skepticism while entrepreneurship was associated with biased commercialization and aggressive sales. Since then, however, with 1) prominent academic scientists engaging in more entrepreneurial activities*, 2) the introduction of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980 (allowing universities to take ownership of inventions) and 3) a decrease in federal funding for basic research (which encouraged scientists to turn to elsewhere for stable support) the negative attitudes towards entrepreneurism have largely dissipated. Scientists today have increasingly embraced entrepreneurship. More academic labs now than ever before are commercializing products and forming start-ups based on technologies developed or discoveries made in an academic lab. According to a 2011 Nature Methods editorial, between the establishment of the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act and 2010, there have been more than 6,000 new companies formed from US universities.
While entrepreneurship is exciting, the entrepreneurial spirit is vital for science. The US Small Business Administration identifies an entrepreneur as “a person who organizes and manages a business undertaking, assuming the risk for the sake of profit”. These are traits that could easily describe a Principle Investigator, who, essentially, manages a lab of people who test ideas and budgets the resources of the lab for the different projects. However, these are only the most fundamental qualities of an entrepreneur. The most successful entrepreneurs have several more intangible qualities.
In a study of 2500 entrepreneurs, Gallup identified several characteristics that separate highly successful entrepreneurs from their less successful peers. Among these characteristics are several that are most commonly associated with the entrepreneurial spirit: determination, risk taking, creativity and promotion.
Survival in science requires determination. It a characteristic that is probably found within almost all scientists as it is ingrained in us from the start. Most of us have had projects go awry, had confusing and perhaps directionless experimental outcomes, and experienced multiple rejections. But, we all know we need to find a way to overcome these obstacles, and in the end, we usually do. It is simply impossible to be in the field without being able to put up a fight and motivate oneself.
Beyond determination, risk taking and creativity are qualities that often set apart the best scientists. The most innovative work and amazing discoveries have often come from scientists who think unconventionally, take great risk, and do their research creatively. While performing safe research often leads to small, incremental progress, which is important and needed, well thought-out but risky projects done creatively are often what lead to the giant leap and catapult fields in new directions. There should be a balance between safe and risky research, but taking an entrepreneurial attitude reminds us it is important to be aware of this and not settle for the traditional methods and ways of thinking when more is possible.
Gallup also found that the most successful entrepreneurs are great promoters. Similarly, scientists need to not only be able to perform experiments and analyze data but also need to be able to sell their work so that society remains interested and excited about research, and thus willing and eager to support it. Additionally, no matter the experimental results, an enthusiastic presenter can still dazzle colleagues at conferences, publish in good journals and receive sizable funds to continue risky, creative science. Hence, promotion in science, as in entrepreneurship, is necessary and rewarding.
Though scientists once viewed entrepreneurship with great skepticism and perhaps even repulsion, the science community has gradually come to embrace entrepreneurism and has become increasingly aware of the importance of an entrepreneurial attitude in science. If the recent years are any indication of the future, it is probably reasonable to assume that the boom in scientific entrepreneurism will continue for the foreseeable future, as scientists are increasingly looking for jobs outside academia and new companies are constantly formed from research done in academic labs.
Furthermore, while this article focuses mostly on the US, entrepreneurism seems to be regarded in a similar light by scientists in other developed countries. The embrace of entrepreneurism by scientists in developed countries has started spreading to emerging countries, with some of those countries enacting similar policies to the Bayh-Dole Act. While some of the emerging countries, most notably China ($), have seen much growth in scientific entrepreneurism in the past decade, it will be interesting to see if the trends continue in a similar manner and as rapidly as the development of scientific entrepreneurism in developed countries.
*ie: founding of Biogen by Walter Gilbert, Sir Kenneth Murray and Phillip Sharp, and founding of Genetics Institute by Thomas Maniatis and Mark Ptashne
Diana Cai is a winner of the 2015 Boston Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition. She is also a graduate student in the Genetics and Genomics Program at Harvard, where her thesis research is in the realm of cancer biology. She was previously an undergraduate at Columbia, where she majored in biochemistry and performed research to better understand neural development.