By Elaine Lima de Souza
Scientists, do you still remember when and why you decided to pursue this career?
I went to several clinics and hospitals with my grandma, because she had diabetes and heart problems. I was always seeing those people with white jackets everywhere. However, I never thought of pursuing a medical career. I was studying chemistry at that time, and I loved working in the laboratory. However, when I visited a cancer institute in Brazil with my mom, the picture of my future career became clear to me. I had an opportunity to visit a laboratory where they studied ways to cure cancer, and there I decided to become a biomedical scientist. I believe that the environment I was exposed to, and my experiences helped me to make this decision.
I got my Master, Ph.D., Postdoc, but I started to ask myself whether all these efforts were helping me to impact people’s lives. Moreover, there were only few research positions in academia, and the government’s budgets were continuously shrinking, making me doubt my career choice.
My life took a different path, and I came to live in the Netherlands - a place full of science-based businesses. I started wondering why there are so many entrepreneur scientists in this country. In the Netherlands, the interaction of academic scientists with entrepreneurial peers, inspire them to an entrepreneurial mindset. There is an interesting study showing that scientists exposed to entrepreneurial peers will be encouraged to become entrepreneurs as well. Researchers from the US studied 20,000 scientific co-discoveries to identify what factors explain which scientific advances will be translated into commercial products via startup formation (1). Despite similar scientific capabilities of both research groups, there was one crucial factor that differentiated them: exposure to peers in the workplace with entrepreneurial experience. As we say in Brazil: “Tell me who you walk with, and I will tell who you are.” Inspired by this conclusion, I decided to enter a new industry: from the industry of knowledge to the industry of innovation!
The first time I heard about startups, it was about the startups in tech from Silicon Valley. However, new ventures, like startups, are also critical players for the commercialization of academic technologies in science. Starting a science-based business has a tremendous contributions to society supporting job growth, economic development, and engagement for scientists’ development to realize the full potential of early academic discoveries.
Bioentrepreneurship is mainly academia powered. However, like many life science academic researchers, I still lacked the skills needed to either commercialize my academic discoveries or even to be a good hire for industry. That is why, from my own experience, I believe that academic researchers should be educated in bioentrepreneurship, to increase their chances of getting hired in the future.
In the Netherlands, there are outstanding programs for career development in life sciences, and one of them is the Biobusiness Summer School. There, I learned how to commercialize scientific discoveries, not only by licensing and technology transfer, but also how to start and develop your own company. In this course we learned directly from industry leaders in the Dutch biotech sector, which shared their experiences. A recent article published in Nature Biotechnology, about teaching entrepreneurship for life science researchers, suggests that the best instructors in bioentrepreneurship are industry leaders, like CEOs and laboratory chiefs.
How to teach bio-entrepreneurship where there are not many bioentrepreneurs?
If the bioentrepreneurs are the best influencers for the next generation of bioentrepreneurs, how will it work? Although the number of bioentrepreneurs in your university, or even in your country, maybe not enough to engage a more entrepreneurship-mindset in researchers, it might be time to go where they are. One of the possibilities is to search for international biobusiness courses. Investing in educating scientists to bioentrepreneurs will be crucial to expand the life sciences industry and to bring solutions to society. In addition, it’s time to raise awareness for established biointrepreneurs to feel responsible for inspiring others, which is essential for growing and developing the innovation industry in biotech and related sectors.
I changed my mindset because I changed my environment. Let’s change the setting and train more scientists to gain insight into bioentrepreneurship and become valuable industry professionals to strengthen their position on the job market and advance their career development. This will significantly elevate the professional development of scientists, accelerate economic growth, and thereby benefit society in a sustainable manner.
(1) Matt Mark & David H. Hsu. The Entrepreneurial Commercialization of Academic Science: Evidence from “Twin” Discoveries. June 2019.
(2) Lynn Johnson Langer. Building a curriculum for bioentrepreneurs. Nature Biotechnology. v32(9):863-865. September 2014.
Elaine is Content Creator for BCF Insights, and Founder of BioUnie, a startup with the vision to connect Brazilian individuals, startups, and established companies to the Dutch Life Sciences & Biotechnology Ecosystem to inspire advancement of the innovation industry.