Simon Barker, EE Times' resident student entrepreneur, ponders his PhD studies and decides they are a good fit for business. It's all about problem-solving, organization and commitment.
NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, England -- I am an EE PhD student here in the snowy north of England, and aspiring entrepreneur currently balancing the demands of my research and running a small company called Slotzz (http://www.slotzz.co.uk).
My company is totally unrelated to my research - indeed it is not really related to electronic engineering except in that it is complementary to the iPad and iPhone and to similar mobile devices. However, I have been filling in a grant application specifically targeted at young entrepreneurs and one of the questions asked was this:
"What is your highest qualification to date and how do you believe this helps you in running your business?"
Still being a year out from finishing my PhD I had to answer that my highest qualification is a bachelors degree, but I feel that the studies that I use the most in running Slotzz are those conducted for my PhD. This may sound odd, a highly technical qualification helping someone to run a mobile device accessory company, but there is a surprising amount of crossover once you leave behind the nuances of the topics in question.
1. Starting a company is a mammoth task with a seemingly never-ending list of things to do in the first few weeks. Prioritizing what to do and breaking the process down into small, manageable chunks is vital to deal with this. A three-year research project is an equally huge, daunting and seemingly insurmountable task at the start, however once you develop the skills to identify key areas, requirements, milestones and outcomes the whole thing boils down to a series of steps that should, in theory, lead to the desired outcome.
2. Running a company is a calculated risk and there are things you can do to minimize the uncertainties but ultimately it is a risk, just like research. Any new topic worth the title of a PhD is likewise inherently risky. You set out to push the boundaries of science and engineering just a tiny bit further with little idea as to how it will pan out. There are things that can be done to minimize the risk, literature review, contacting leading people in the field to discuss issues but at the end of the day no one knows for sure what is going to happen. This is probably the most important thing undergraduates, myself included, learn when transitioning into research; coping with that uncertainty and the fact that often we just don't know the answer and that's why it's research. Living with uncertainty is constant with running a business.
4. Creativity. I don't mean in the arty sense, I mean in the "How to reach this milestone" sense. Can't afford the fancy pre-printed branded bags for the upcoming Christmas sales fairs? Find a way of branding the cheaper unprinted ones and yield the same result at a fraction of the cost. Can't afford to pay the branding experts a fortune? Find a way to achieve the desired branding in-house. Similarly with research; equipment needs adapting, a machine can’t quite do what you want, a test rig needs building as no one manufactures quite what you need. These little problems that arise whilst doing research can make for some extremely creative solutions and this experience in the research world seems to be influencing my business decisions.
5. The final one is a simple one - project management. I may be in the minority, but for my PhD research I have a reasonable amount of autonomy. My supervisor is a fantastic help and inspiration, and his physics background is a huge help when dealing with a problem from a fundamentals approach, however my topic is outside his core area of knowledge. This means I have guided my project from a very early stage. Nothing could be better preparation for the CEO position of a startup. The responsibility of setting direction, ethos and committing to making products and marketing falls to the founders and dealing with some of the parallel issues in steering my PhD has been a fantastic help in the business.
Those are my five reasons why PhD students can make it as entrepreneurs. This is by no means an exhaustive list and I have not considered some aspects of a PhD which would not transfer well into business. I think though, that if nurtured properly, and given the chance, there are a lot of PhD students that are well-equipped for – and would enjoy – the entrepreneurial journey more than they probably think.
What about fund raising, which is the most important to your firm's survival? Most PhDs, myself included, are terrible fund raisers especially in the business world, self-promoting is not exactly compatible with scientific spirit I guess. :)
I've to disagree with all the points raised in this article. Here is why.
(1) the tasks are vastly different, and the required skillset to complete those tasks is different as well. As a new company CEO you need to negotiate a lease, health insurance for employees, find and convince new people to join the team,etc.
(2) Well, the main difference in that risk is that in many cases you fund the company out of your own pocket. The cost and the consequences of failure is different as well.
(3) By going "jack of all trades, master of none" route is a bad idea. The quality suffers. The development time is longer. The cost of a book-keeping mistake is unnecessary audit and possible penalties.
(4) After doing all the things in #3, there is no time nor energy left for creativity
(5) CEO is all about efficient execution, that is doing the work using others. Working solo on a PhD is quite different.
Fund raising is an interesting one, I really enjoy presenting ideas and persuading people to my point of view so I quite enjoy pitching I rarely have to do it though because of the nature of out business. Transition this to the science world and I see it like this. Although there can only be one reason behind a particular scientific result the interpretation by humans can be wildly different, you only have to look at how people view climate change data for that. Arguing these cases and defending your work can arm you very well for presenting your business and defending your choices. In the same way as science thoigh you need to be open to new ideas as well. It is something you get better at the more you do.
One last thing, fund raising is not the most important thing to a firm's survival - sales is :)
Thanks for the input
Thanks for you input, it's always nice to hear a different point of view. Let me comment a little on the points you raised.
1. These are all things you can learn how to do, and fall in to the "nuances of the topics" that I spoke of. The need to realise how to accomplish a task is still the same, break it down and execute.
2. It is true the consequence of a company failing is money lost. The PhD system in the UK means that my funding stops after 3 years and if I don't submit my thesis within a year of that I have to pay high fees and will likely be failed. If your research doesn't produce results you can literally waste 4 years, get in to big debt in that last year and not gain a qualification for that time. I see that as a big risk.
3. I agree that a jack of all trades is bad. However, that is why I talk of borrowing aspects from other areas, in my PhD I will still be an expert in high temperature energy harvesting and electrical systems but I have a suite of tools I use to be that expert. Doing you own books is very common, they are still passed to a chartered accountant before submission anyway so they are professionally vetted at the end.
4. I disagree with you here, you do number 3 so you can be better at 4. To be creative you borrow, adapt, re engineer and ultimately come up with a solution to a problem. As to there being no energy left, well that that's down to the individual. I love what I do and find I have "no energy" for very few aspects of it (working through tax is one I struggle to get excited on)
5. Very true, how you execute changes with the company. In a small team the is more doing and less delegating but either way I believe that aspects of project management cross over well and you adapt to the new situation.
You've raised some interesting points.
Most of the PhD's work goes to libraries and becomes a book work and none makes use of it.Every new PhD scholar wants to go into a new area of research.So many of the past works are unused.If PhD scholars can work little more on their work and bring it as a usefull solution to the society they can very well become a successfull entrepreneur.
Taking an engineering degree and then a PhD teaches one how to think solve problems and therefore qualifies you for all types of tasks unrelated to your specialty. Without doing a formal survey, the CEOs of many if not most hi tech companies have some kind of engineering or science degree and quite a few of the are PhDs - and there companies ideas are just an extension of their PhD work. Do you eventually need other people like a CFO, HR etc.? Yes, but not at the very beginning.
Quite interesting to read the article.
Is inspiring. And very interesting also to read comments from the readers. I see that the different point of views enrich the discussion.
But most importantly... we ought to investigate how many Entrepenuers are PhD graduates? Actually... there are some school drop outs that have been great entrepenuers right? Well, among the famous ones they were studying the PhD grade.
At the end... I think being a PhD sometimes works good for some and not so good for others in regards to becoming an entrepenuer since the personality has to do a lot on the final result.
To be an entrepenuer one has to have the desire and passion for that and be willing to do some sacrifices. I think many PhD are of the calculating and not so daring type.
You're so right - I listened to a talk from Proff Max Robinson who is very high up in Kromek (cadmium telluride sensors for 3D imaging) and he said that it's a shame that so much research is never put back in to society in some way - obviously some of it is and we feel the benefit of that but a lot isn't commercialised.
Thanks for your input