Starting a software company, as an academic
May 24, 2014 1:20 PM   Subscribe

I am an academic about to get tenure, but I'm thinking about an alternative career trajectory. In particular, I have an idea for software that (I believe) could be revolutionary, related to my field of study. I'm thinking of quitting my job to pursue this.

I would like to possibly start a company to make this software happen. I am a programmer, but not a professional programmer and I am not a professional designer. I would need help realizing this goal. Some possibly relevant information: My wife and I are Americans. My wife works in the UK, I work in the EU. If I were to quit, I'd move to the UK. I have about $100K saved up. I have no debt.

Here are some questions:
1. How does one get explore funding for this sort of thing?
2. How long does a startup process take, and what steps are there?
3. What complications are there of starting such a business in the UK?
4. Would I have any difficulties as an American national in the UK?
5. What should I consider when thinking about software patents?
6. Is this something I could pursue and keep my academic job, without my university having an intellectual property claim over the software?

Also, any general resources for prospective software entrepreneurs would be appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I know of a number of academics who either take a sabbatical to see if their idea will pan out or who supply oversight and gravitas to company's while still holding their academic job. Is that possible for you?
posted by Carillon at 1:31 PM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

General resource for prospective software entrepreneurs: Hacker News

Some of the folks there are doing business in the UK. I believe I know of one of them who is not a UK citizen (there are undoubtedly others, I presume). You might be able to get some names and contact info and ask nicely if you can get some feedback.
posted by Michele in California at 1:45 PM on May 24, 2014

Get tenure, negotiate to take leave of absence? You can always quit once you've got funding in place.
posted by pharm at 2:03 PM on May 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's really hard to give specific advice without knowing anything about your industry and/or product. The most important thing here though is to consult with a lawyer to see what ownership you might have over any idea you work while affiliated with your academic institution. No one here can answer that for you.

As far as more general advice, there is a decent amount of literature on startups and fundraising. I would start with authors like Steve Blank and Eric Ries. You should be thinking about product market fit and what your MVP might look like. If you cannot build the MVP by yourself, you are about to have a very difficult time. That being said, even if you can't build it, you sure as hell better know what it might be.

Higher level thought: do you actually want to be an entrepreneur? Do you enjoy managing people? Do you enjoy sales and/or fundraising? Are you willing to put the majority of your financial value in peril? What I mean to say is, getting the idea is just the tiny first easy part. Make sure that you actually want to do the rest of this.
posted by yeoldefortran at 2:04 PM on May 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

I sure see a lot of prof's at MIT fand Stanford attached to their very own company, perhaps talk to some of them on talking points to encourage your institution into a joint venture of some sort.
posted by sammyo at 2:05 PM on May 24, 2014

You are really going to want UK-specific advice here. I say that because while I am not in the UK and can't advise, I suspect the UK is closer to Ireland than it is to the US. We have an enterprise board for every county that gives grants; nationally and locally funded start-up incubators out the yinyang; two universities with departments dedicated to nothing but helping random academics develop their shit for the private sector; and a national enterprise board that will fund the snot out of anything with export potential. You need advice on analogous programmes both for the UK nationally and specifically where you are looking at locating. (And it can make a difference; I know that where I am, there is a city enterprise board and a county enterprise board and one is great and one is shite!)
posted by DarlingBri at 2:21 PM on May 24, 2014

1 The tools to make software are cheap. Do it yourself and you don't need funding.

2 Usual minimum is 24 hours for MVP. Maximum is usually around 10 years.

6 Yes, have a contract that states what you do on your own time you own. I doubt you'd get it though for an academic job, the whole point of the job (unless it's pure teaching) is to fund your ideas and keep ownership of them.
posted by flimflam at 3:02 PM on May 24, 2014

Is there a market for your product? How are you with the business / legal side of things? Having a great idea isn't enough to keep a business afloat, even if you manage to secure initial funding.
posted by mantecol at 3:17 PM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

In particular, I have an idea for software that (I believe) could be revolutionary, related to my field of study. I'm thinking of quitting my job to pursue this.

This is hard to comment on usefully without specific information, but don't forget that most academic fields will be resistant to revolution.
posted by clockzero at 3:20 PM on May 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

Having a good idea is easy. Implementing it well is hard. Marketing it effectively is extremely hard. So there's a ton of risk. Don't quit your day job. Find a way to do it concurrently.
posted by Dansaman at 3:22 PM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Universities supporting faculty in developing businesses is a thing. At minimum you have to see what your terms of employment are re IP at your university, but they may actually have business support for you. Something like this UILO.
posted by Gotanda at 4:34 PM on May 24, 2014

You may want to check your contract and your jurisdiction's laws -- depending on the circumstances the university might own part or all of your IP, whether or not you quit.
posted by gerryblog at 6:16 PM on May 24, 2014

Dropped in to say much the same thing as Gotanga - my experience in the U.S. is that many (all?) large research universities have a business development group for converting ideas like this into IP and will possibly have an incubator to then convert the IP into an actual company. They will have people on staff who can competently help you navigate questions #1 through #5. While the university will certainly expect a cut, the one I've been directly involved with is generous with the academics bringing the ideas to the table and it generally works out well for everyone involved. If your current university has a mechanism like this, it should be easy to find some other professors at your institution who have already done this so you can get some first hand advice on whether to pursue this or to try and go it alone.
posted by kovacs at 9:15 AM on May 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older Old Kenmore washer/dryer - help find manual or...   |   Name this old country tune? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.