How can I become an entrepreneur in high tech science?
October 23, 2014 1:21 AM   Subscribe

I am a recent college graduate who's been interested in combining interests in science and engineering with business. I would love to get into something entrepreneurial, but am not sure how.

I recently finished a combined bachelor/Masters degree in chemical engineering; my research projects were related to synthetic chemistry/materials science and biotechnology. I’ve been working as a research assistant at my old university for the last few months, but I’m looking to make a longer term move soon.

I feel like I have a lot of options. I could get a job at a traditional chemical engineering company or pursue a purely academic route in the field. However, I’ve always had an interest in entrepreneurship. I’d love to get involved in a startup or small company and to one day start something myself. I am really passionate about my field and would love to combine it with something entrepreneurial.

However, I’m not entirely what the best path is to do that. Two options I’ve been considering for the immediate future are applying for PhD or getting a job. I was thinking about the PhD because it seems like that could potentially give me an opportunity to do research which could lead to something useful. I've read a few case studies of founders commercializing their PhD work, which would be great if reproducible. But, it do this, it seems to me like you’d have to somehow pick a topic which is very easily translated to something commercializable (which is not entirely clear how to do) and would have to get lucky that it works. I don’t know if there’s a way to kind of stack of the odds in my favor there. I’ve really enjoyed the inventive/research process that I’ve been a part of previous my degree, and so thought the PhD might be a good way to continue to do that. Moreover, it seems like even if the commercialization idea didn't work out, perhaps I could use the expertise gained during my PhD to get into research in an entrepreneurial company?

I was also considering the idea of working off the bat, instead of doing more study. Perhaps a smaller company would be good, but potentially working for a larger company could provide valuable experience. Ultimately I suppose I’d really like to start something myself. My only concern would be whether jumping into a job would give me the opportunity to do that.

I feel like have a pretty solid resume, and good recommendations, so feel like I could go in a lot of directions. I'd just like to take the one that gives me the most options to potentially do something entrepreneurial and innovative. Any advice on what I should think about in this case would be much appreciated.
posted by cestlavie to Work & Money (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Do more research before you decide what to do with your life.

Talk to professors at your university about your interests. Many universities have programs where they try to commercialize their technology through private partnerships. Your professors will be able to tell you if your school has something like that (you can also google "yourschool tech transfer office" -- if you have one, that's an indication this happens at your school). They may also know entrepreneurs in the fields you're interested in.

Do you have a way to talk to people at the types of startups or small companies you might be interested in? What about your alumni network? Here in Boston there are lots of startups, and correspondingly lots of Meetup groups, tech talks, etc. Many of these are open to the public. Law firms that want to get startups as clients also sponsor open networking events -- if you have a startup community in your area, check out websites for law firms. Try to attend events and meet as many people as you can. Ask them questions about what their jobs and companies are like, and tell them you're looking for career advice.
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:26 AM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Get a job, become frustrated with some aspect of it, then start a company to make that aspect less frustrating.
posted by oceanjesse at 5:55 AM on October 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you're a good salesperson and excellent socially, get some smart friends to work with you and some rich person to give you startup funding. If you can't do this then a PhD followed by industry work is the way to go. From a social class perspective, successful entrepreneurship (own 20+% of a company) is highest, followed by self-directed academic work (PhD), followed by paid employee work. Read Peter Thiel's book "Zero to One" if you take the startup path.
posted by sninctown at 6:20 AM on October 23, 2014

You want to be entrepreneurial in high tech? Get thee to silicon valley while you're young. It's not just for software engineers. There is a lot of real science going on out there. I have some contacts that may interest you. MeFi mail me if you want to discuss further.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:14 AM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm curious where you're at, also. If you're at a major university with a good MBA program there may be a new venture club of some kind that you could get in touch with. I think the odds of commercializing your PhD work are pretty low (and moreover, you'd want a clearer sense of PhD focus before you applied to one), but on the other hand, science PhDs are actually highly prized for head of (non-coding) R&D type positions at startups.

There are a few MeFites around who've been on either side of this question and can give you some advice... better advice, I think, than you're likely to find from talking to professors who are 95%+ entrenched in academia. (Exceptions include those with significant industry collaborations or who've spun something out of a university setting.) Myself, I'm putting apps together for PhD programs right now after a while on the commercial side of things in the life sciences, so happy to give you some perspective from that end. PM me.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:25 AM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've had interactions with some biotech start-ups and am a chemical engineer with a master's degree.

Science start-ups, especially biotechs, are not like computer start-ups. You will not get very far without a PhD in terms of controlling what experiments go on our the direction a company takes. That's both a function of the difficulty of the work and an entrenched culture. if you look at the founders and board of directors for science / biotech start-ups, you well see that many to most have PhDs.

With your current level of education and experience you can probably get a research assistant level job at a science type startup. This would entail doing the hands on lab work for relatively little pay (compared to other jobs you could get with your degree) under the direction of a PhD level scientist. This might be a good way to get your feet wet and see if that industry/culture is something you like.

Alternately, if you entered a PhD program now, you will spend the next 4-6 years under the direction of a PhD scientist working on an academic project you may or may not enjoy for relatively little pay. It's unlikely that your research would be commercializable in the near future, but you would learn some skills and get a cool degree out of it. Post PhD it would be pretty easy to get a scientist position at a start up, especially if your PhD project related to something in the industry.

A nice middle ground might be to try to find a research associate job at a start up while you scout out professors you want to do a PhD project with. If you really take the time to find and form a relationship with a professor who does research amenable to your entrepreneurial desires, you'll have a better chance of doing commercializable research.

Good luck!
posted by permiechickie at 2:05 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

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