Some entrepreneurs hop into the game without an academic pedigree, and some hit the books before they hit the street with a product or service. In fields like robotics, biotech, and artificial intelligence, the latter is usually the case, as the specialized knowledge required to form a company is pretty slim outside of an institution.
BETA Robots founder Andreu Corominas got his “chops” in robotics while completing his PhD in mobile robotics at the Institut de Robòtica i Informàtica Industrial (IRI) in Barcelona. Like many fresh PhDs, Andreu had a hankering to have even more freedom for his projects, and to leave the lecture halls and libraries for a business of his own. Many an academic would be congenial with his motive for expanding his ambitions to business: “I think that when you are working for yourself you are more creative,” says Andreu, “You are more free to think… and you are FORCED to think.”
In the time with Andreu – keeping in mind the goals of my readership – I asked him about his practical tips for other academics who were aiming to make the leap to business. The first pointer from Andreu is to avoid losing connections in academia. Admittedly, getting into one (or more) startup projects tends a lot of time and attention, but there’s a real danger in becoming isolated from your research field because you’ve made the transition into business. Not only is the academic world fertile with other ambitious minds, and smart, specialized people in the domain of your interests, it’s also an important source of the kind of information that can give an entrepreneur the edge.
“Being connected to theory can provide a real business advantage,” says Andreu. For this reason – and to continue his research interests – Andreu plans to remain involved at some level with the IRI. Certainly not every entrepreneur needs to plan to stay that invested in academics, but Andreu sees it as important never to cut those ties. In an age where technological progress is as rapid and progressive as it is today, being “plugged in” to the potential hotbeds of innovation at schools is a must for many startups.
The blunder here would be insularity, an over-focus on working on the business idea or the technology, with no more short roads to where the ideas are coming from. One of the benefits (and frankly, appeals) of entrepreneurship for many academics is the ability to wear more hats and be capable and responsible for more functions of a business. For a new entrepreneur – especially one accustomed only to academia – he problem is in doing this well, and in not leaving any necessary functions out of the equation of a venture.
Secondly, Andreu recommends avoiding another trap that academics and easily stumble into on the journey to business: ignoring the market. In academia, ideas and innovation are commended in and of themselves. Research alone yields rewards, grants, and recognition. In the business world, an innovation plaque won’t get money from the pockets of consumers, and a fellowship or scholarship from a top school won’t guarantee financial backing from any investors. It’s possible to innovate and get wrapped up in an idea without ever tuning into the markets to see if any demand exists… or could exist.
So, just as Andreu recommends staying connected to academic, he recommends staying connected in the field – talking to customers, professionals of the industry, or other entrepreneurs to discover how to dial in a legitimate business concept from a thesis paper. Though losing track of your focus is a potential danger, there is the equal risk of being too secluded. Andreu rightly states that in this day and age when the rest of the world is connected – you cannot afford to be alone. Great ideas are harder to find in the isolated hovels of the toiling genius – and “unplugging” from research or from the market is a death-rattle for a startup businesses.