The Three Ways That the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Changing How Science is Done

Dmitri Petrov & Denis Kourakin, NGX Bio

The Three Ways That the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Changing How Science is Done

Startup entrepreneurs and scientists are generally painted with very different brushes in popular culture, and in turn, in people’s imaginations. While startup entrepreneurs are generally depicted as young, forward thinking, movers and shakers playing ping pong and using macbooks in hammocks in open plan Silicon Valley palaces, scientists are generally thought of as older, lab coated, eccentric Einstein lookalikes playing with potions in laboratories.

However, despite the stereotypes, today’s scientists are not as different to Silicon Valley’s creative minds as you might think. Entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in laboratories around the world too. Scientists share many qualities and characteristics with entrepreneurs, including inner drive, a passion for innovation, hypothesizing and testing, and a willingness to take risks. As science becomes more global and complex, and has shifted to more collaborative projects, scientists have adopted a new level of interest in entrepreneurship culture.

This article will explore three ways in which the Silicon Valley work ethic is rubbing off on science and changing its culture and practices:

Alternative, faster routes to funding

Science graduates have traditionally only had two career options available to them; taking an academic route, or joining a multinational industrial company.

A recent National Science Foundation (NSF) report shows a steady decline over the past decade in the number of PhD graduates going into academia work, dropping to 49.3% in 2014. This is partly due to the hurdles these academics face when raising funding for their projects. An article in Vox brought light to the seven greatest challenges facing science today. After surveying 270 scientists, they found that funding ranked as the number one challenge. Scientists wishing to join a multinational industrial company face obstacles of their own, due to the high level of competition for these roles.

However, nowadays, the startup explosion over the last decade has created a third option for scientists and biologists; to create their own companies.

A rise in science focused incubators and accelerators has presented scientists with a new opportunity to turn research into business opportunities, and theories into real products. Instead of having to write grant proposals for a thesis or PhD investigation, scientists are increasingly learning the art of the VC elevator pitch, helping commercialise their discovery or innovation.

Usually scientists would have to wait 4 to 6 years before being awarded a research grant, however with new accelerators such as IndieBio emerging, a scientist with a researched hypothesis can go from bench to product in as little as four months.

Even the Silicon Valley investors who play the wider field have generated interest in the space of science, offering support to an increased number of startups with biotech or life science backgrounds. One example includes Y Combinator, a world famous seed accelerator, who have recently invested money, time and resources on sciencebased startups including Transcriptic, Gingko Bioworks, Atomwise, Bikanta and uBiome.

Co-working and collaboration

It used to be the case that most scientists worked in a lab, be that at a company or at a university. Today, entrepreneurial and startup culture of co-working and collaboration is starting to change this too.

Pharma Giant, Bayer now runs a science co-working space in their west coast incubator, renting out lab space and research centers to promising scientists. Moving from “lab” to “loft” ideally connects the incubated companies with a mentor network of academics, entrepreneurs, and industry experts, while maintaining easy access to all necessary technical equipment.

Co-working spaces allow scientists to take their own path, independently from universities, and big corporations. Working alongside others can help bounce ideas, share results, and eventually form businesses. Matter, a Chicago co-working and incubation hub for medical and health tech startups has been the forefront of developing the city into a leader in health technology. The space is home to over 130 startups, several with Series A and B funding, that are set to dominate the medical technology markets, dramatically changing science as we know it today.  

Fail Fast, Fail Often

Particularly in biology and medicine, it can take years to know whether a project has failed or not. However, the Silicon Valley mantra of “fail fast, fail often” is slowly taking shape in science too. Scientists are realizing that if they can recognize the need to pivot faster, they can have a better chance of hitting the jackpot earlier.

However, this will require a cultural shift. Entrepreneurial failure in the startup world is met with respect for innovating and taking risks, however in the science world failures are often kept quiet.

Scientists have traditionally been afraid to announce failures in fear of having their funding cut. The fail fast and often mentality is in fact helping science become more efficient because publishing these failures can prevent researchers from wasting their time on projects that have already been deemed unsuccessful.

Just as Silicon Valley founded FailCon, a conference for technology entrepreneurs, investors, developers, and designers to study their own, and others, failures to prepare for success, the science world has created a Dark Reactions Project - encouraging chemists to share their own failures. The website was created by a team from Haverford College and Purdue University to highlight the importance of failure data to help make better future hypotheses and predictions for the future.

According to an article on STAT, the team of chemists that created the Dark Reactions Project have also developed a software to outperform scientists in predicting ways to make crystals - thanks to using algorithms including previous failed experiments. Scientists can be more open about the errors in their past projects knowing it can be useful to them, and others in the future. Some scientists have even begun including a “Rejections & Failures” section on their CV to encourage the movement of being vocal about the setbacks they have faced.

BioCity Nottingham, an incubator for life science companies, offers short term contracts to scientists and startups, inviting flexibility and a “try it, try it fast” attitude. Labs and universities on the other hand often expect a commitment of five years, which pressures scientists to continue work on a hypothesis for years until they reach a tiny breakthrough, rather than accepting it may not work.

Science is an area which is constantly evolving and improving, but up until recently it has mostly done so behind closed doors. However, positive influences from startup culture are spurring new attitudes and culture in the field. As more and more science accelerators and collaborative projects emerge, the line between scientist and entrepreneur is likely to be further blurred, to the benefit of both fields, and hopefully society as a whole.

About the Author

Dmitri Petrov is the co-founder of NGX Bio and a lab head at Stanford University. Denis Kourakin is CEO of NGX Bio - a company which provides access to any sequencing platform globally - fast and cost-effectively.