Profile: web entrepreneur
Today's post is by the lovely and talented Biochembelle, a postdoc in biochemistry who blogs both at LabSpaces (Ever on & on) and There and (hopefully) back again. Today she leads us down the road of Alan Marnett, creator of BenchFly.
Chemist. Entrepreneur. Oh, and he might just save a bit of your sanity. Alan Marnett is the founder of BenchFly, “a web-based resource and holistic, everyday guide for the entire career of a scientist.”
Marnett is just the sort of guy you might expect to see in a chemistry lab. He’s a third-generation chemist. “Even as a kid, it appeared my chemistry genes were highly expressed,” Marnett joked. “Actually, it was probably more like my ‘will-these-two-kitchen-items-blow-up-when-I-mix-them’ genes.”
He received a Ph.D. in Chemistry and Chemical Biology from UCSF and went on to a postdoctoral position at MIT, intending to eventually go into academia.
“However, two years into my postdoc, I began to question whether an academic position was right for me,” Marnett said. “While there were many aspects I loved about becoming a professor, I felt I owed it to myself to at least consider other opportunities–to sort of career date before deciding to marry the lab.”
But which career to date? “I found I gravitated toward entrepreneurial opportunities. I like the idea of trying to turn a dream into a reality, whether it’s pursuing a specific research project or starting a web-based resource for scientists.”
It was during Marnett’s undergraduate work at Trinity University that the idea for BenchFly first shimmered into being, although he didn’t realize it at the time, he said. There he worked with a postdoc named Chad Peterson, who had both a passion for teaching and “golden hands,” as Marnett put it.
“Every reaction he set up seemed to work,” he said. “Chad taught me all of the tips and tricks he’d learned over the years, and it was those techniques that gave me the skills and confidence to continue in research.”
But when Marnett got to grad school, he discovered that not everyone was like Peterson.
“I realized that whether a student gets properly trained or not is unfortunately pretty random—it depends on the project, the lab, the PI,” he said. “I saw many colleagues end up in bad situations that eventually soured them on research and drove them to leave science altogether.”
But Marnett thought that there must be a better way.
“I wanted to try to develop a resource that supported scientists and made them feel that they have a mentor and partner committed to their success both in and out of the lab–like a virtual Chad,” he said.
So Marnett got to work. It took about 10 months to get BenchFly off the ground, officially launching in 2009. “I find I get much less sleep these days than I did as a postdoc, but I love it.”
BenchFly’s mission is to “provide researchers with the community and tools they need to develop both professionally and personally in order to make research a better career today and for future generations of scientists,” he said. “Science is about much more than just performing experiments, so we try to tackle issues both in and out of the lab that affect our lives as researchers.”
Alan Marnett, courtesy photo
During development, Marnett realized that scientists and entrepreneurs have a lot in common.
“In science, we identify a problem that interests us and that we think, if answered, will be a significant contribution to science/health/society/etc. Then we go about systematically figuring out how to solve the problem. Entrepreneurs do the same thing. I think scientists make great entrepreneurs in part because of our critical thinking skills. As a result, many of the skills you need to succeed as an entrepreneur, you probably already have,” he said.
However, the freedom of entrepreneurship can also be a bit scary.
“Starting out as an entrepreneur, it can be very difficult to know which decisions may end up setting you back and since there are lots of choices to make, the independence can also be stressful.”
To aid the process, Marnett recruited a support network, including a scientific advisory board. He knew the importance of having mentors to provide advice and guidance in the lab and realized that he would need the same in this entrepreneurial venture.
“What may seem like a bullet-proof idea at first may have serious unforeseen challenges that could ultimately bring it down,” he said.
Fortunately for Marnett, that hasn’t happened. And he’s not done building yet. “We’re working on a number of features for the site as well as some really fun projects that are not Internet-related that I wish I could talk about, but you know the old saying—‘I could tell you, but I’d have to…’”
In the meantime, there’s plenty to see and share at www.BenchFly.com via commenting, submitting guest articles or uploading videos. “Topics range from professional to personal to recipes to, well--Chuck Norris,” he said.
And despite the stress and lost sleep, Marnett said, “I feel very lucky that I have the opportunity to realize my dream and work towards creating a resource I hope will have a positive impact on scientists worldwide.”
Thanks so much to Biochembelle for the great guest post!
Informed scientists are happy scientists! Although please be more informed than this and use proper personal protective equipment. Image by flickr user laimagendelmundo.