UtrechtInc Blog | How Scientists and Entrepreneurs can Join Forces

Blog by Stefan Braam, Startup Incubation Lead @UtrechtInc, stefan@utrechtinc.nl

At first glance scientists and entrepreneurs seem to be very different people. The scientist, a reserved rationalist. The entrepreneur, a risk-taking flamboyant hustler. These are just stereotypes and they’re both not true. Every day I see proof of this at our university startup incubator UtrechtInc. Here we teach entrepreneurs and scientists new skills or connect them to complementary people and technologies. We help them turn their ideas into startups, that can ultimately grow into leading technology companies. So, to achieve this kind of impact, how can scientists become or team up with successful entrepreneurs?

Let’s start with some digits. Over the past nine years UtrechtInc facilitated over 180 startups to market. Half of them have a scientific background. Of our startups more than 65% still exist after five years and in 2017 alone their collective revenue surpassed 100 million euros. Over the past decade we’ve come to better understand the success factors of science based startups and the PhD’s, doctors, researchers and professors that founded them.

Creating real Impact

Why would you choose a career in science? For the fame, for the money? I believe the fundamental motivation of most scientists and researchers is an interest to make the world a better place by creating valuable knowledge. Knowledge that, when applied, makes lives healthier, easier, cheaper, less unequal, less painful, more sustainable, more enjoyable, more meaningful, etcetera. But how should that new knowledge find its way to society? The process of value creation out of knowledge, by making it suitable and available for economic or societal impact, is called valorisation. How can you create impact that’s really going to change the world?

Publish or Practice

In the traditional way, scientific knowledge is mostly spread through publications. Typically, a scientist applies for a grant to conduct research and turns the outcomes of that research into publications, preferably in a highly ranked academic journal. But I, and with me more and more other innovators, wonder about the additional purposes research findings could have… However, the standard publications serve another goal. They help build the reputation of a scientist and improve his/her chances of getting access to even bigger grants. This is an endless circle. Of course, there’s less room at the top. There are less big grants than small grants, meaning that in science there’s also an up-or-out mechanism in force. In Utrecht, only 20% of PhD candidates that aspire an academic career find a job at the university after they finish their four-year PhD (risk). So, in addition to producing new knowledge (the product), the scientist spends a lot of time building a reputation (marketing) and acquiring grants (selling). Do you see where I’m going with this? An increasing number of scientists become or team up with entrepreneurs at our startup incubator and discover that starting a company is an excellent way to create and deliver impact in society.

Leo and Doc

So, if you ask a scientist what an entrepreneur is like, you will probably get a description of Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. And, if you ask an entrepreneur what a scientist is like, you will get a description of Doc from ‘Back to the Future’…

Building a business requires skills like perseverance, empathy, dealing with uncertainty, teamwork and the ability to convince others. Being able to speak in public, to socialize and network with people you’ve never met. Then there are the different ingredients that make up a successful startup. A validated understanding of the customer and the problem you’re solving. A product or service that creates value. A great sense for timing, determining the right moment to launch or when to speed up or slow down things. Access to funding. Having the right business model to deliver and capture the value you create. And most important of all, an understanding of what makes a great team.

So how do we merge Leonardo and Doc? There are roughly two ways to go about this. The first way would be to train the scientist to develop the skills and behaviours required to become a successful entrepreneur. The second way would be to find someone that already has these entrepreneurial skills and behaviours and have them form a founding team together.

The four H’s

A great startup team generally consist of four roles (but doesn’t need to be four persons): the Hacker, the Hipster, the Hustler and the Hound. The hacker is the tech-person in the team, in charge of hardware and software development and data. The hipster is responsible for the aesthetics, marketing and how a user interacts with your product or service, making sure it is irresistible. The hustler is the businessman in the team and knows all about financials and sales. The hound is the user researcher, continuously running experiments to better understand the users’ behaviours and feeding that back to the team. Where does the scientist fit in? Scientists tend to feel comfortable with the hacker and hound roles and less so with the hipster and hustler roles. However, a startup will never be successful if the hustler and hound roles are not well executed. So, let’s get back to the two ways to merge Leonardo and Doc.

What does the incubator do?

When scientists come to UtrechtInc we help them discover their entrepreneurial side. They do several workshops, get training and coaching to develop these business skills within themselves. Part of this group feels empowered by these new abilities and starts using them in real business situations. The other part of the group doesn’t develop these skills. For this group we know that more training and coaching will probably not help them. In these cases, we help the scientist to find an entrepreneurial co-founder who covers the business aspects, while the scientist focuses on developing the product or service. Our widespread network of experienced entrepreneurs and young innovators is a big help in this search. Additionally, UtrechtInc organizes a matchmaking event called ‘Team up with Startups’ every few months. During an afternoon we match scientists who want to startup but don’t have all the skills, to entrepreneurs who want to startup but don’t have a product or service yet. We set it up in such a way that the scientists and entrepreneurs get to talk very briefly in an informal setting, much like a speed dating event switching tables every few minutes. The real interesting talks start during the informal drinks afterwards, when many follow up appointments are made. We’ve seen some great teams form this way. Teams that went on to successfully participate in our intensive accelerator program for science based startups. They work together at our co-working space, get coaching, transform their prototype into a product, participate in networking events, discover their first customers and benefit from the feedback, tips and tricks of the community of UtrechtInc.

Team over Money

I believe the biggest misunderstanding is that startups are about having the right idea or having a huge investment. I am an idea-guy myself and I can tell you that ideas are easy. Doing it successfully is the hard part.  And some of our most successful startups have gone very far with a starting budget of only a few thousand euro through savings, family and friends. I believe the biggest challenge for any startup is forming the right team, where all the required skills, talents, motivations and personalities generate the execution-power needed to become a successful company. Whether a scientist is trained to develop entrepreneurial skills himself/herself or is matched to a co-founder who possesses those skills… For me, it’s great to witness these teams bring their invention to market. For them, the biggest rewards is in making their product available to the many people and organizations that can benefit from it!

Does this resonate with you? Let me know what skill you think is most important when scientists want to become entrepreneurs. And for those tempted, please understand that you will never truly be ‘ready’, so you will just have to take that jump. UtrechtInc will be there to provide a soft landing and accelerate you to the next level! 

Stefan Braam