What it takes to be a chemistry entrepreneur

If you’re a chemist with a great idea, it just might be that some entrepreneurial training and business savvy is all you need to start up a company that could lead to new jobs, according to Harvard University professor George Whitesideds.

George Whitesides, professor at Harvard University, talked about what it takes to start up a small company. If you missed the ACS Webinar, check it out here: http://acswebinars.org/vcf2011-innovation

A few weeks back, Whitesides, along with ACS Immediate Past President Joseph Francisco, co-hosted an ACS Webinar titled “Entrepreneurship + Innovation = Jobs.” If you missed it, you can view the recorded webinar here. The option of taking your idea and starting up a company is something that’s not talked about in much depth in the circles I run in, i.e. in grad school. Whitesides said he believes this is a problem. Students are coming out with advanced chemistry degrees but without the entrepreneurial know-how to turn their ideas into profits for the benefit of themselves and the economy. During the webinar, Whitesides shared his thoughts on this issue and also offered suggestions to the ACS regarding what they can do to help create more jobs for chemists. Read the entire report from the ACS Task Force here. What’s the problem? Whitesides had a thing or two to say about what it will take to get chemists back in the game. To begin, the Task Force asked the question, What is causing the decline in employment for chemists? Is it a problem of declining need for chemists, or chemists’ decline in innovation? The Task Force's conclusion was that “there's no loss in innovation, but there are problems in getting the ideas that are emerging in chemistry into a state where they are recognizable in creating large numbers of jobs,” Whitesides said. In other words, the problem is not that there’s nothing left for chemists to contribute. In fact, the biggest problems facing society now are problems that require chemistry-- so the opportunities are, in principle, unlimited, he said. Okay, it’s not that chemists aren’t needed in society. They are. So, the problems lie more in the arena of turning brilliant ideas into marketable products. But starting up a company is not as simple as we’d like to think.

It takes more than a great idea to start a company. It takes business know-how. Photo credit: Flickr user Walter Helwich

“A bright young person has a good idea, gets some money, starts something in their basement, garage, and they get started, there's a company… it doesn't quite work that way,” he said. Rather, it's a very complicated process. The person with the idea needs to think about what kind of product they will create, apply for patents, and figure out how they’re going to cover the costs. When it all boils down, it takes more than a good idea. You need to have business skills—or find people who do. We need to build bridges between the research universities (which have new ideas) and large companies (which manage cash flow and have the business know-how), Whitesides said.“When we succeed in doing that, we will, I think, have re-energized the chemical enterprise.” So, what will the ACS do to help? Whitesides explained that the most vulnerable part of an entrepreneurial start up is at the very beginning, because you don't have enough money, or don’t know what you’re doing, and things can do awry. The Task Force offered the following suggestions for what the ACS can do to support young entrepreneurs. (Also check out a story by Rudy Baum in C&EN about a press conference Whitesides and Francisco held on the issue).
  • Build a technological farmers market, where people just starting off can get advice from experienced entrepreneurs.
  • Encourage senior members to provide expertise to the patent service to shorten the time to achieve a patent (it can take 3-4 years, which is a long time to wait when you're trying to get a company off the ground).
  • Help provide finances for new start-ups by encouraging big companies to bring money back to the U.S. and invest in small companies.
  • Extend academic education to include exposure to those topics that might be interesting to people who want a non-standard career, i.e. who want to start up a company.*
*As an aside, Whitesides mentioned that the last point is a “very deep ideological issue,” and that some may not agree that business training is an appropriate component of academic training-- What do you think? Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs The best way to learn is by doing, so Whitesides said he recommends that students hoping to start a company someday should work for a small company and learn the ropes. Make yourself an apprentice to someone what has succeeded in starting up a company. Also, if you’re still a student, take advantage of opportunities to learn about the business side of things through programs and classes that may be offered on your campus. I know my school has a business certificate program offering night classes once a week for a semester. Maybe your school has a similar program—you should look into it. Some excerpts from the Q&A Q: What non-chemistry courses are absolutely needed for those interested in startups? A: Business courses, of course. Learn about money and what it takes to make a good product. A good idea isn’t enough—there has to be a market for the product. Q: For folks age 55 and over-- is it too late to be innovative? A: The short answer—no. Every little company has the dream of having an experienced person in that area come and give advice. Oftentimes, some of the most useful people in companies are those with a lifetime of experience. Q: The job situation is terrible, jobs are scarce-- What is ACS doing to help? A: Go to the Careers tab on the ACS website. There are 30 different programs that the ACS is doing to assist members to get jobs, refine skills, get the resources they need. In a nutshell Whitesides summed it up with these words: “To have a successful innovative enterprise, you have to have a good idea... but there's another kind of skill, which is understanding how to reduce that to practice, which is different. And what you need to need is find a way of putting those two things together... that is what will create products and jobs for the future.” Or, in other words: Brilliant ideas + business skills = Successful entrepreneurship   Any folks out there who have started up small companies-- please chime in with your two cents! What were the crucial components to your success?   Related Articles: Entrepreneurial Focus Key To Job Creation ACS Webinars: Academic Jobs Outlook Project management as a bridge between roles in science and business    

Author: Christine Herman

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  1. I don’t know why business training wouldn’t be useful for students – many people (unless the grad student population shrinks massively) will end up working for businesses and so would have better opportunities if they have a good idea what things are done and how. It also seems like a good idea for people going into academics to have an idea of what research could be useful and to have an idea of how useful research can be made into relevant products, both for making money and for doing useful things.

    I wonder how many ideas are being found that can create jobs on large scale. The kinds of technologies that created jobs on big scale seem to have been products of blue-sky technologies – the kind of research that few people fund (not in business, and the emphasis for government funding is application or generating jobs). Instead, the focus of research is on research likely to create value in the near term, which probably isn’t what will change the nation or the job market positively (it’s why we’re here now, in part). There are likely good ideas that aren’t being translated into jobs and businesses because of lack of entrepreneurship, but if big ideas aren’t investigated, the changes from improving the efficiency of getting research to market may not be very big.

  2. A brilliant idea does not necessarily have to be a new product. I think the business mindset of realizing a market, learning a process, then using chemical know-how and problem solveing skills to improve upon a process, make it more reliable, efficient, or use different materials is just as beneficial for job-growth as the brand new products.

  3. Interesting discussion.
    1. Would making SciFinder freely accessible to ACS members also help them to innovate and create jobs?

    2. I do not think that changing SBIR policy so venture owned companies should go after SBIRs, these should be left to small companies. Once you open this up the system will be overloaded and it will be like the RO1 grants, very low funding rate etc. tiny mum and pop companies would have no chance – thank you ACS for killing that opportunity for funding.

    So my basic reading is ACS’ solution is to give entrepreneurs awards – great! Back slapping, pictures in C&E news..come on people.

    IMHO – ACS should go out and find the young/ not so young innovators – team them with mentors and get them to work on disruptive technologies and problems – Oh and kick in a few tens of millions of dollars into a venture fund so that if there are any successes it gets ploughed back.

    Simple – stop writing reports get some dynamo’s together that can actually produce something other than another darn pdf that sits on your website.

    We are in the 21st century. ACS is still in the 20th.

    Also – why have only 2 people commented on this – there are thousands of members out there that have to have useful ideas of how to generate new jobs / companies.