One interpretation of the scientific method I learned earlier in my career implied that researchers were not interested in the purpose of their findings.
For many years, I believed that academic research is enough on its own and that scientists do not work for money: they work for the satisfaction of advancing human knowledge.
And that’s fine. Besides, it can even be true in many cases.
However, the fact is that many scientific efforts end-up like papers in a drawer that nobody reads.
This is not fine.
Yet, there is a way of using your scientific knowledge to solve society’s challenges.
Science-oriented start-ups are a new way of doing research and accelerating the development of multidisciplinary solutions to everyday problems.
The way scientific research relates to daily life has changed in the last decades. The word “translational” has impregnated all fields of biomedical research.
Almost all universities have a department working on transferring scientific advances to the general public.
Nevertheless, scientists are not normally looking for a practical or commercial application of their research.
In biomedical research, this can mean pushing forward a drug or medical device through all stages of clinical testing and pharmaceutical production until its approval by the EMA or FDA.
Scientists are artists
The process that brings a new drug from the lab bench to the market is beyond the expertise of scientists. And so should it be.
Because scientists are like artists: they need to flow with their knowledge like a painter flows with her colours to make a masterpiece. Why should they think about how their piece is going to be sold or who should buy it?
But there is another way to do science, that is both fascinating and encouraging, especially for the times we are living.
First, you identify the problem and then solve it with all resources that science can provide. It is a new way of doing science; it is the start-up way of doing science.
Scientists are good entrepreneurs
There are a lot of scientists that started a company out of their own research results.
For example, Dr Cheung from Memorial Sloan Kettering Institute; after years of research on Neuroblastoma treatment, his team designed an antibody that is now in several phase III studies, conducted by Y-mAbs Therapeutics Inc., a company that Dr Cheung helped to establish.
Other examples of scientists turned entrepreneurs are Prof. Ugur Sahin, M.D. and Dr Özlem Türeci from Biontech, the renowned biotech company that developed the vaccine against the Coronavirus, or Prof. Dr Wieland Sommer from Smart-reporting, a company that developed a structured report tool for radiologists.
Factories of science-oriented start-ups
Some Venture Funds go a step ahead and build science-oriented start-ups from scratch.
Deep Science Ventures identifies specific problems in areas such as Neurodegeneration, Oncology and energy storage, and then recruits entrepreneurial scientists and engineers to create companies to solve these problems.
One single scientific advancement on its own is very unlikely to solve a problem. Most problems are multidisciplinary, that’s why you need a team.
Let’s think for a second about the development of a new drug from beginning to end: a molecular biologist designs and develops an antibody, veterinarians perform preclinical research, medical nurses and doctors participate in the trial, statisticians work on the study design and the analysis, lawyers, medical writers, engineers and all type of professionals are involved in every step of the new drug’s development.
If you really want to solve a problem, you need to approach it from all sides.
Today, we need scientists to jump from Academia into the business world (more than ever before)
In the middle of a pandemic, the world is turning to scientists for answers, treatments, measures to control the spreading of the virus, information and vaccines.
Many scientists turned to research on coronavirus and Covid-19 like people looking for gold during a gold rush.
Because scientists not only are interested in increasing human knowledge but also in making an impact (somebody said big egos?).
The opportunity for scientists-entrepreneurs
The truth is, that there is an opportunity today for researchers, for scientists that see the big picture.
There is an obvious urgency to focus on Covid-19, and not only vaccines are needed to fight Covid-19.
We also need:
- to understand the disease and the virus,
- more efficient, fast and cheaper diagnostic methods,
- new treatments,
- ways to communicate scientific data properly and
- to make these resources available to the whole world.
But the pandemic is just one of the problems that humanity faces at the moment. Countless dilemmas wait for a brave and lucid mind to tackle them.
Just look around you and spot the problems that people have: can you help solve them?
Scientific research as a business
Now it is possible to make research outside academia, thanks to the outstanding advancement in technology. Equipment that only a big institution or government could afford some decades ago is now available to start-ups and small companies.
Historically, scientists would focus on their research and later think on possible applications. But the business approach is different: first, you identify the problem, and from there plan your research strategy.
Skills learned in academia that are useful in a science-oriented start-up
Scientists have little to no training on how to run businesses.
But the truth is that coming from academia to a start-up, some skills are advantageous:
- an open mind
- looking at the first principles of things as opposed to analogy to what other people do or think
- readiness to cope with some instability
- and scientists are good at critically appraising scientific data too!
A great difficulty for scientists in a start-up is the time scales and quality expectations. As opposed to what academics tend to think, work in a startup is faster and rigorous than in an academic lab.
Another myth is that academic research is more reliable compared to research done in a company, pharma o biotech. However, the regulations and controls to companies are not comparable to the requirements that academics face. Hopefully, more transparency in scientific research either in an industry or in a university will increase trust and reliability.
It is possible to do good and business
As confusing as it may sound for some scientists, the business sector is not the dark side.
It is possible to do some good in the world, outside universities. Furthermore, some start-up founders don’t have huge financial compensations, and some are not even interested in it.
Where to find help for your science-oriented start-up
“Farmer Hoggett knew that little ideas that tickled and nagged and refused to go away should never be ignored. For in them, lie the seeds of destiny.”
– the narrator, in Babe (1995). Novel by Dick King-Smith. Screenplay by George Miller and Chris Noonan.
If you have an idea that you are passionate to pursue there are plenty of resources you can use.
Start at the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), there you can find workshops, counselling and even entrepreneur camps. Check out some of the events organized by EIT Health.
You can also find information about start-ups, events and resources at EU-Startups, a leading online magazine about European start-ups.
Do not let your idea gather dust!
The new era of start-up science
Traditionally, the role of universities was to be an observer of the world. Still, the position that science plays in society today is based on openness, interaction and collaboration to solve urgent problems.
Translating scientific discoveries into daily life problem solutions was never easy. But it is getting increasingly easier thanks to institutions that guide scientists on how to get their discoveries out of the lab and into the lives of the people that need it.
Because eventually, this is what moves a scientist.
No scientist is happy to see their discoveries gather dust.
There is no better way to tackle a problem than with a proven, scientific method. So why not use it now? The world is watching.