First-time academic entrepreneurs often ask themselves if their work is at a stage where it is ready to make the leap into a company. “It’s not always an easy question to answer,” University of California, Berkeley, biochemist Jennifer Doudna says. She tells her students that their science could move into a company setting when proving that an idea or technology can solve a real-world problem requires resources not typically available in academia. She emphasizes that part about solving real problems, a metric that can help define whether a project is enough to become the basis for a company.
If an idea is deemed ready for prime time, Doudna advises thinking big. “I encourage people to swing for the fences—go for broke, in a way,” she says. To her, that means being ambitious with your vision and thinking about big impact. She also suggests having thoughtful, shorter-term goals along the way.
In addition, Doudna says, new entrepreneurs should be carrying out their work “with the appropriate scholarship,” taking responsibility for confirming that their results are real and never hyping the potential of their research.
A big piece of starting a company is convincing others that your ideas are worth their time and money. Part of the new-entrepreneur hustle is pitching potential investors over and over again.
Get comfortable talking about your science accessibly and concisely, Doudna recommends.
“It’s essential to be able to explain succinctly what you’re doing and why it matters,” she says. “Being able to do that in a sentence or two, and then expanding it to a paragraph, is really hard but is also incredibly helpful.” She notes that many situations arise in entrepreneurship in which the two-sentence answer is needed, but being able to pivot and offer more depth in an understandable way is also helpful.
Another part of the pitch process is being able to read the room. Watching body language and monitoring the vibe in a room of potential investors can help you gauge whether someone is genuinely interested in your technology or is just being polite. “It’s important to pay attention to those cues because you really want to focus your time on folks that genuinely share your excitement about your idea,” Doudna says.
An inventor is only one player in the large cast of characters responsible for moving a product from the lab to the market. Building the right team is critical and requires careful consideration, Doudna says.
“A really important question when one is starting a company and talking to people who might get involved with it as founders, employees, and investors is ‘Why are you doing this?’ ” she says. Answers can be as varied as wanting to see a technology mature, helping cure a disease, and simply wanting to make money. Each of those is valid, but each might result in a timeline or vision for the company that differs from the founder’s or from other team members’.
“One of the most common reasons that companies don’t succeed is they have problems on their team—they have people who aren’t aligned,” Doudna says. “It’s really important to spend the time necessary to find out what motivates each person and to make sure those motivations are similar.”
Everyone needs a good sounding board. For Doudna, that person is her husband, University of California, Berkeley, biochemist Jamie Cate. “He has started companies himself, and he’s just a very savvy person,” she says. “I always find his guidance helpful.” Moreover, when you’ve been married for a long time, your spouse has no qualms about saying “That’s really stupid,” Doudna says, laughing. But more important, “I can hear that from him, because I know he’s coming to anything I bring to him with careful thought.”
For those without the luxury of a live-in expert, Doudna points out three categories of people who “have been incredibly valuable, over and over.” The first is colleagues who have gone through the process and can offer guidance on transitioning to entrepreneurship and understanding a university’s licensing process; this understanding is critical to navigating complicated intellectual property landscapes that can inhibit disruptive ideas. Next is the group of bankers, lawyers, and other professionals that can handle the nitty-gritty details of setting up a company. Last, Doudna points to the rich vein of knowledge and resources offered by the staff at local innovation accelerators and incubators. Her companies have benefited from the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, a University of California system accelerator that offers a panoply of entrepreneurial resources, including mentorship, lab space, connections to service providers, and networking opportunities.
Maintaining work-life balance is a topic that Doudna has been thinking about a lot lately. “It’s really, really important to recharge,” she says. “You can’t go at 110% all the time and expect to stay healthy, for one thing, and also to just be performing at your best and have creative ideas.”
Doudna tries to schedule work so that there are moments to breathe among the packed days and weeks. “I try to plan days where I have a lighter schedule or take some time off for myself—even if it’s a couple of hours to take a walk somewhere,” she says.
And while the process of starting a company is unavoidably intense, “that’s all the more reason you need to find even small ways to carve out time for yourself—to take a moment here and there to reflect on what’s happening.” Creating that space benefits not just you but also your company, she says. “It’s often those moments when you’re not consciously focusing on work that the really interesting ideas come,” she adds. “I like to keep myself open and receptive to those.”