For those of you unfamiliar with the process of dragging a company kicking and screaming through a university system, it requires people that believe in what you are doing (both from the university Office of Technology Transfer (OTT) and from your own team), and people that you believe in. It requires strong intellectual property, disclosures and patents of that intellectual property, careful and considerate navigation through the university’s conflict of interest maze (especially complicated if you and/or your partners are university employees). You need a successful proof of concept, a structuring plan for the company, and all the legal paperwork to create the business entity and build your team. Then, you must seek license agreements with the university in order to actually use your technology to manufacture and sell your products, find lab space to make the products, and (it should be the first on the list because nothing happens without it) money. Easy enough, right? Before you know it, it has been years since you first disclosed your invention with the university and the light at the end of the tunnel is so far off you may actually be confusing it with the white spots igniting in your brain from lack of sleep, too much caffeine, and being more overwhelmed than an ant lifting a fifteen-passenger van.
RULE #3: Build/recruit a strong team and trust their expertise.
Many people assume that I must have some business experience to even want to start this company. Perhaps an MBA? Maybe an entrepreneurship degree? Maybe some common sense? Nope. None of those. Except for some entrepreneur workshops and conferences focusing on green chemistry startups, I am almost 100% pure synthetic organic chemist. What I do have is a technology that works, a technology I am confident in, a market that will support my company, an unfaltering passion for what I do, and a confidence in the company that does not weaken. I also have a great team of advisors and teachers that have expertise in company startups, scale-up and production, intellectual property and patent law, as well as professional experience in COO and CEO positions. While some of these advisors do not have a specific role with the company, they were suggested by Tech Launch Arizona (the University of Arizona’s technology transfer and commercialization arm) for their experience and knowledge to make sure we got sound advice and guidance regarding markets, incorporation, intellectual property, etc. While we are still a little ways off from our final goal, I have learned a lot from these experts.
Being a chemist who has worked for years on projects and research in an individual capacity, it was difficult to accept that I would need as much help as I do to get this company going. However, it was – and still is – important to understand one’s own limitations. For example, I am no accountant, attorney, or engineer. I cannot run the company on my own. But with the help of your university’s connections, and the connections you have made along the way, you can put together a team of experts as passionate about your company as you are and as willing to trust you to do your part as you are that they will do theirs.
RULE #4: Do not assume you know everything
That brings me to my next rule. Please do not assume that you are already an expert in business and marketing or that you have any idea what you are doing in the business side of things if you are a scientist. If there is a time to grow as an entrepreneur, it is during these early stages of company development. I guarantee that the first time you learned to walk you did not look to your parents and proclaim that you already knew how. Starting a company is the same thing. In a business setting, being a young know-it-all entrepreneur could be hugely detrimental to the success of your company. Instead, you need to ask questions, get opinions and feedback, listen and absorb information, and build your knowledge as an entrepreneur. If it had not been for some early discussions I had with retired employees of several major surfactant manufacturers, I would still be chasing inappropriate markets and trying to incorporate a product unsuitable for the customer demand; both a market and a product I was convinced would be the initial targets.
While it is important to know your technology and the chemistry associated with it, many of your team, the university technology transfer folks, many of your advisors, and most investors do not want to hear the scientific details. They came to talk to a business professional and entrepreneur. So be one. Embrace the inevitable truth that you can no longer be 100% chemist, but instead that you must learn to be a chemist 50% of the time and an entrepreneur the other 50%. For those of you who wish to hold a position in your company higher than Chief Science Officer, you are likely to find that your job will demand an even higher percentage of entrepreneur, maybe even as much as 100%.
RULE #5: Do not give up
While I am unable to predict the future success of any startup (even my own), I can say with absolute confidence that it will be a lot of work to get there. Therefore, my final rule may be the one that you must constantly tell yourself. While it may feel as if you are trapped in a rat maze and that every turn you take is a dead end, you cannot be discouraged. If your technology is feasible and you keep moving forward, one of those turns is bound to get you one step further towards where you want to go. It has been a long four years now since I first took a multi-step, expensive, and dangerous synthesis, with a large environmental impact (the bad kind), and modified it into a “greener,” low cost, scalable, and reproducible process for producing “green soap.” Only just now does it appear that the dream I had so long ago might actually come true. In that time, I have dealt with many issues, including problems with reaction reproducibility, optimization, and scalability; stalled disclosures of the technology as our university technology transfer arm underwent a complete reorganization; and the lack of funds for further proof of concept experiments, capital equipment, lab space. Through all of this, I was trying to start a company while maintaining a day job to keep getting a paycheck. All of this can be daunting and discouraging, but the key is to forge on and – as another mentor of mine said – “don’t fight the tape”.
As things progress and you begin to succeed in what you set out to do, the workload becomes larger and the days longer. But, keep reminding yourself that this is what you really want to do. If you are like me, what you are trying to accomplish is not just for you, but for everyone involved. It is for the betterment of your community and, hopefully, the world. And if you are like me and work hard to remain focused on what you want to achieve, always remember the mission of your company and never stop defending it -- especially if you are planning to take a stance for “green” products and processes for your company. Never give up! Even when it sometimes seems like the people around you might be giving up. You will eventually be able to discern the light at the end of the tunnel from the other white spots in your vision.