Lessons learned as I moved from Cambridge Fellow to Y-Combinator start-up CEO
Dr Simmons, Founder and CEO of Cambridge Glycoscience
When I started as a postdoc at Cambridge back in 2013 I knew – absolutely knew – that I would eventually become a Professor. It was a done deal, there was no question. But this would turn out to be one of many ‘knews’ that I didn’t actually know. Instead, in the Autumn of 2015 I first started hatching an idea to build a start-up company, and in 2018 my biotech baby Cambridge Glycoscience graduated from Y-Combinator’s accelerator programme in Silicon Valley.
It was a rocky journey, during which I had to change strategy numerous times – a process that really tested my dedication. But, eventually I managed to turn an idea I had into something that can actually stand on it’s own feet – with a lot of support from a great team as well as institutions like Judge Business School’s Diploma in Entrepreneurship, the BBSRC/Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise Fellowship programme, Cambridge’s Office of Postdoctoral Affairs and Biochemistry Department, among others.
On the back of all this, I was asked by the p2i-network team to write a summary of lessons learnt from the experience, that other postdocs might benefit from. In doing so I’ve found myself emphasising an approach to university innovation that is underappreciated and, because of that I think, full of opportunity for postdocs. That is: building science-based businesses on expertise acquired at universities but not on university inventions specifically; in other words, building university start-ups not university spin-outs.
Ok, let’s dive in.
Lesson 1: Look for solutions inside of the lab, but start with problems outside
The dictum ‘get out of the office’ is such a staple of entrepreneurship education that it’s almost cliché. It was once questioned whether this advice would apply to deep tech, but I think its possibly more true for researchers building science-based businesses than for anyone else. Unlike the academic settings that these budding entrepreneurs are used to, in business you need more than book-smarts and a journal subscription to discover opportunities – you need to be talking to people. Business opportunities aren’t discovered in your head, your office, your lab, or your test tube – that happens in the wider world.
The inclination to talk first won’t come naturally to many bookish PhD-types. But it’s definitely easier to teach this to a scientist than to teach a blathering salesperson all the technical intricacies of a cutting-edge scientific field. For me, the most progress came when I stopped trying to fit the outside world onto my science and started doing the opposite.
Lesson 2: Expect opportunities to come from connecting the dots between your general technical knowledge and market needs
Why is it so important to ‘get out of the office’? Well, there are two main risks in not doing so. The textbook one is that you’ll waste time trying to build things that no customers really want. That’s a risk, for sure. And it’s the one the whole lean start-up movement was designed to address. But to my mind it’s actually not the biggest missed opportunity here.
The biggest missed opportunity, I think, is that when scientist-come-entrepreneurs aren’t aware of a range of big problems upfront, they miss the opportunities that occur when big problems are solved by science that isn’t novel – by technological solutions that require tangential thinking, but that can be drawn from a general scientific skillset. Instead, they start with what’s most scientifically interesting (after all, from the science-first perspective, that’s what stands out) and thereby drastically limit the range of problems they could solve.
To stress the point: ground-breaking science businesses don’t need ground-breaking scientific discoveries. I’m sure there are a plethora of would-be businesses that could be built on current robust science, without the need for new discoveries.
The big thing holding back the creation of these businesses is not a limit of scientific knowledge, but a dearth of scientists that can discover business opportunities and can translate robust science into business-ready solutions. This makes this type of entrepreneurship ideal for PhDs and postdocs. If you have a PhD you almost certainly have enough technical knowledge already; but as do all of your colleagues. If you also can uncover business problems and bring your technical knowledge to bear, you’re in a very select group.
This is university innovation, but not the tech transfer way. If I had to pick one thing most likely to boost university innovation, I would focus on having young scientists learn this, not spending any more time with a pipette. Research councils take note.
Lesson 3: Start the company to discover the problem, don’t discover the problem to start the company
So understand problems upfront, and don’t constrain yourself by thinking only about your latest paper or discovery. But do get things moving straight away, and work it out on the fly. This is another staple of entrepreneurship education: if you want to start a company, you can’t defer the formalities too long.
Before I incorporated Cambridge Glycoscience I explored a lot of ways that I could ‘test the water’ without incorporating proper. The aim was to mitigate risk, but in hindsight this did nothing but delay the process. You start the business to work out what the business will be, not to execute on a pre-proven plan, you can’t know it all in advance. Coming from an academic setting this is particularly useful, you need to get out of academic mode and into business mode.
Lesson 4: Fall in love with the idea of solving important problems, don’t constrain yourself to one at the outset
For me, this process resulted in a business with a strong social mission: reducing sugar in the food industry. This is no accident. Like many would-be entrepreneurs I was focused on building a business for more than just commercial gain. Many of the great entrepreneurs can trace back a story showing that their company’s mission was a destiny they were born to achieve. So how on Earth do you find yours?
Well, I don’t think you should – at least not upfront. Life lessons always look clearer in retrospect, and in the heat of the moment little does. Had Elon Musk gone into the film industry, some wily biographer would no doubt have been able to spin a yarn about how that too was destined from birth. But in reality, like the rest of the business-building process, it comes during the process of building. It’s hard enough trying to align market needs with technical capability, never mind trying to constrain it further to solve one particular mission. So don’t.
The advice I’d give to aspiring mission-driven entrepreneurs is not to fall in love with a specific important mission at the start, but to fall in love with the general idea of building a business to solve an important mission. Just like with the rest of the business, you’ll never know upfront what your investigations will uncover.
Lesson 5: You need intelligence, you need creativity, but most of all you need persistence to commit when there isn’t much to commit to
Falling in love with the idea of solving an important problem certainly helps through the lonely first months when it’s not clear what your business is doing. But you need more than hope to survive the process (and so does your business). When I tell people I had to go for the majority of a year without a real salary they often assume I must have been very confident of success – but of course for the majority of the time I wasn’t. And if you’re paying attention to the story above, I can’t have been.
It comes with the territory. To my mind this is the ultimate job of the entrepreneur: to create something out of nothing, to commit when there is nothing to commit to. You can attract employees when the story sounds compelling and when salaries can be paid. But all solutions are unclear at first, and those solutions need to be made clear enough for others to get on board.
So how do you make ends meet starting a business that doesn’t have any business? I built a side-business that could pay the company’s bills. I also had part-time – very part-time – jobs lecturing, and running entrepreneurship events for the university, which allowed me just about to pay bills while focusing full time on the business. You need to find creative ways to get through it and certainly shouldn’t jump in blindly, but when it’s time to commit this has to take first place.
That’s a very limited summary of some of the key takeaways from my experience. I hope that’s of some interest to people. Feel free to contact me if you have any thoughts or questions. I’m very happy to share other specifics.