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Questions to ask to find out if entrepreneurship in Life Sciences is something for you?

Written by: Nazma F. Ilahibaks

"Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come." as Victor Hugo eloquently said. Academia is filled with brilliant people working on ground-breaking innovations. Thousands of publications underscore the significance of their findings to improve the health outcomes of patients someday. Yet someday may never come if the research ideas fail to move from the bench to the bedside. Academics' primary objective is knowledge creation to support the knowledge economy and create value. Yet, knowledge is useless if it is not applied. While graduate school mainly prepares you for the academic career ladder, more roads lead to Rome if your goal is to translate your research. You won't solve any real-life problems by only staying in the ivory tower. Hence, you need to go out there to identify the problem and assess if your research is the solution. Throughout the years, I've explored how my research can solve certain societal problems. Whether you are a Bachelor, Master, Ph.D., or Post-Doc, here are some questions to find out if (academic) entrepreneurship is something for you and your research.

1. Find your why
Why are you doing what you are doing right now? Because your mom told you to become a doctor? Or do you believe you can better the health of 1 million patients? Or do you want to become the next Nobel prize winner? What motivates you to get out of bed each morning to undertake actions to achieve your long-term goals or purpose? Rationally, your actions are defined based on the responsibilities of your job description. Yet emotionally, you can feel completely disconnected from your work. Emotions drive your actions and form the ground whereupon you build your why. Stop thinking about how or what you're going to do and start to think rather why you are doing something?
Book tip: Start with why – Simon Sinek

2. What is your risk profile?
Everyone has their own comfort level when it comes to risk. Are you a play-it-safe or risk-opportunity person? Entrepreneurship is a combination of ignorance and courage. The ignorance to focus on what will happen if you succeed rather than all the reasons why you would fail. Including the courage to turn your ideas into actionable results. Defining your risk capacity comes down to your ability to move out of your comfort zone, especially financially. Be frank with yourself and determine how long and if you can get by without a steady paycheck and the benefits of job security.

3. Which problem are you solving?
There are numerous unmet medical needs in the world, insufficient processes, or expensive products in the life sciences industry. Look at the problems out there and ask yourself this:

1. Which problem are you solving, and what evidence do you have, e.g. preclinical or clinical data, that your product or service will be successful?
2. Does your value proposition have a competitive advantage over existing goods and services in your field?
3. What is the cost/benefit of your problem-solution fix, i.e., what is needed in terms of time, cost and strategy to develop a successful product?
4. How can you efficiently proceed with R&D development to reduce the number of expensive errors early on?

4. How are you protecting your invention?
As scientists, we are trained to share our discoveries through conferences, poster presentations, or publications. However, by directly sharing your findings, you forgo the opportunity to obtain proprietary rights to protect your invention. Without a patent, you cannot legally protect your core technology or products from being commercialized by competitors. Traditional drug development biotech companies need approximately 5-15 years of capital runway before hitting the market and generating revenue. Hence, having proprietary rights is critical to get investors on board whose only promise is an exponential return on their investment in the long run. Ask yourself these questions to be safe rather than sorry:

1. Is your invention novel, has an inventive step, and has an industrial application? These are the three criteria to file a patent under European Patent Law.
2. How do you prevent copycats and ensure you have the freedom-to-operate?
3. How do you keep your competitive edge via patent protection over rival products or services?

5. Business model and market
You can build a grand theory around your biotech idea, but you need a practical reality to maximize your operational activity for value creation. Technology and science are futile unless they stimulate the growth of better, more efficient drugs that save time and money. The business model describes the operational activity of your startup, which drives economic value. To assess which business model and determine if you are targeting the right market, clarify the following matters:

1. Which market need are you fulfilling?
2. What is the core competency of your invention: a technological development or product for disease improvement?
3. Are you offering a service or a product? To be specific, is your value proposition a service to help companies streamline processes, or do you develop a product like a drug or medical device?
4. Who are your customers? Patients, pharmaceutical companies, healthcare professionals, researchers?
5. Is there a benchmark of a business model that indicates your operational model is profitable?
6. What is the most likely sales trajectory for your product and how fast do you anticipate to gain market share?

At the end of the day, ask yourself what makes your heart beat a little bit faster and connects you to your purpose. Be frank with yourself if you, and your heart, can handle the uncertainty and risk accompanied by entrepreneurship. Also, a great idea is nothing without the proper execution. Test your assumptions to identify if your research solves a real problem, addresses a market need, can be protected, and define your business model. It is critical to seek out professional help early on from mentors and your technology and transfer office. Look for mentors outside your current environment who have accomplished in their career what you set out to do. Mentors are important, because they can put you on the fast track and guide you through the process.

Share this article if you found it helpful.

© Nazma F. Ilahibaks, 2021

Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. Penguin.
Peter, K. (2004). The entrepreneur's guide to a biotech startup.

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