Throughout my experience as a cognitive neuroscience PhD and edtech entrepreneur, I have been struck by the similarities that exist between conducting cutting-edge research in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields and the lean startup methodology.
Unfortunately, a clear language disconnect often impedes the progress of STEM scientists as they attempt to turn new technologies into a scalable business. By serving as a mentor to scientists turned entrepreneurs through the DC I-Corps program and at AccelerateDC, I have uncovered the following four insights that I hope will help bridge the language gap that often exists between researchers, business advisors, and investors.
1. Relentless Iterative Innovation
Publications are imperative to secure a faculty job and research investments (i.e. grants from the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation). Indeed, traction in scientific research is demonstrated by building innovative experiments leading to results that get published in peer-reviewed publications, followed by securing funding to establish one's own lab. This process is similar to entrepreneurs needing to demonstrate solid sales and market penetration growth to capture investor attention. Both researchers and entrepreneurs have to demonstrate outstanding traction and productivity to get funding and grow their operations and team.
2. Product/Market Fit
In academia, you have to sell your research results to multiple possible buyers, such as editors and reviewers of scientific journals, program officers and selection committees to publish as well as secure grants. That selection process begins as early as the graduate school admission stage of a researcher's career. If a prospective student is unable to articulate the potential contribution her research will make while being synergistic with a target faculty advisor's line of research, the prospective researcher's career won't find an advisor willing to invest her time, energy, money and reputation to support her PhD research idea. In the lean startup world, this would be the equivalent of pitching to get admitted into an incubator or accelerator program where you must convince multiple stakeholders of the value proposition and scalability of your product or service.
3. A/B Testing
One of my favorite professors always said that science is not about being right, it's about being less and less wrong. At the core of a research endeavor is the mission of securing money by selling a method to refute previous assumptions and offer a better, more parsimonious theory of a complex phenomena. If one's pilot experiment does not pan out the way it was predicted, or if the interpretation of data is hindered by confounds, the researcher pivots her thinking and formulates new experiments to test another hypothesis based on the new data they gathered. The core questions entrepreneurs are pursuing differ, instead centering around maximizing value: Is your idea or product a must-have or a nice-to-have? Who would pay for it, how much and how often? Similar to when researchers formulate new hypotheses and experiments, lean startup entrepreneurs pivot their strategy based on the new data they gathered when their sales results or traction metrics don't support the founders' initial assumptions and strategy.
4. Securing Investments
STEM researchers have to successfully compete for investments from very tough angel investors. The average funding success rate for a research R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health was 18.1% in 2014, demonstrating that securing research funding to develop a minimal viable experiment is no small feat. When pilot data show promise, then PIs will inject more money, time, and expertise into the research program to guide the new investigator through the process of publishing their research in a peer-reviewed journal and mentor them in getting their own research funding. The more a PI can replicate this process of generating innovative results that get published in top journals, the higher their ability to secure new grants and build a team to conduct more cutting edge research. Although the timelines are vastly different, this process of gaining traction in research is similar to demonstrating the combination of increased revenue and decreasing customer acquisition costs that make startups attractive to investors.
I hope these insights will help both scientists and business advisors gain a better mutual understanding that, in many ways, most published scientists have several successful exits under their belt in the form of publications in cutting-edge, peer-reviewed journals.
Dr. Mrim Boutla is a cognitive neuroscientist turned career coach and social entrepreneur. In 2010, she co-founded More Than Money (MTM) Careers, a certified Benefit Corporation that deploys e-learning solutions to help recent graduates and working professionals get hired faster for internships and jobs that maximize impact and income. MTM Careers platform has been deployed on over 52 US campuses (e.g. Brown University, UNC Kenan-Flagler, Michigan/Ross, UMD/Smith) and through top global social change movements (e.g. Net Impact, Startingbloc, Education Pioneers). @purposeU