Deep inside many a well-educated and experienced technologist beats the heart of an entrepreneur. I am a scientist by trade, with a PhD in pathobiology and molecular medicine and years of experience in medical research at places like the Mayo Clinic and Duke University. But I realized some years ago that being a professor was not where my talents would be best-served. What I had my sights on was starting and growing a biotech company that creates products and services to improve peoples' health.
Today, I'm CEO of Aperiomics, a biotechnology company that harnesses the power of deep next-generation sequencing to identify all known pathogens (every bacteria, virus, fungi and parasite) in a single test. We are changing EVERYTHING about how infections are identified and giving people answers no one else can give. We are changing the world!
But I'm getting ahead of myself. When I began my entrepreneurial journey, I knew that I needed business training. So, I took courses, networked, took advantage of free local business development services and hired an executive coach who helped me find my footing.
1. Fake it till you make it
First, I had to convince myself that I was qualified to run a business. What I lacked in confidence, I made up in gumption - the "fake it 'til you make it" attitude. If you don't have confidence in your abilities, why should anyone else? There is a perception that scientists are not good business people. That perception is not entirely wrong. It's not enough to have a vision. You also must know how to build a great team, develop needed products/services, find paying customers, make payroll, build company culture, secure financing capital, define your exit and everything in between.
2. Know your strengths
It is important to know your strengths. Make fun of Myers-Briggs all you want, but it helped me map out what I was good at, what I liked doing and what work I disliked so much that doing it eight hours a day would have been a near-death experience. I volunteered with several non-profits where I served in executive leadership roles. This gave me invaluable skills and the confidence to navigate complex HR issues. It confirmed what I knew even in high school and college -- that I am good at leading.
Relationships are everything, so you must network. You don't meet many new people when you work in a research lab, so networking did not come easy. Now I belong to medical trade groups, chambers of commerce and other organizations. I quickly realized that when you have a great exchange at a networking event with, for example, a possible investor or customer, that brief conversation WAS your first meeting with them. You're a step ahead. How many "no" answers can you stand before you find the people who will say "yes?" Turns out I can stand a lot.
4. It's about Grit
Now, about being a woman in a male-dominated industry... I need to address it because it IS tougher to be a woman in this business. When you're a young woman it's hard to be taken seriously. When you're a bit older, it's still hard to be taken seriously. Women have to prove themselves over and over with every meeting, every investor, every employee, every customer, every partnership. And yes, I've faced inappropriate behavior from men in the industry. My approach is to not dignify the bad behavior with a verbal response. But if looks could kill... I make it clear that I am serious about my work and they quickly learn that I mean business!
So, there you have it. When young people ask me how I put myself on a track to running my own company, this is what I tell them: I made myself believe that I could run a business and then decided that I deserved to enjoy the work I was doing. Meeting the right people put me into a circle of potential success and then I made sure that as a women entrepreneur in a male-dominated field, my voice was heard loud and clear.
After all of that, I made the jump from scientist to entrepreneur and am now the CEO and co-founder of Aperiomics. We just closed a $500,000 round of investor funding, we've received over $1.6 million in grants from the National Science Foundation and we just signed a partnership to expand our reach into Latin America and Europe. So we're headed in the right direction. My team and I are indeed changing the world!
About the Author
Crystal Icenhour is founding CEO of Aperiomics and an expert in infectious disease diagnostics. Her mission is to change the entire thinking about pathogen testing. Dr. Icenhour received her PhD in Pathobiology and Molecular Medicine from the University of Cincinnati. She conducted postdoctoral research at the Mayo Clinic and at Duke University Medical Center where she is an adjunct professor. Icenhour holds two patents, has authored and co-authored numerous research articles and theses, and is a prolific speaker and presenter at scientific conferences.