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.