It’s a common misconception that to become a science entrepreneur, you must complete a research track at a university or commercial research lab, or have a university pedigree.
It is also rarely a linear and straight line to the finish.
As the founders of Cicada Innovation demonstrated, successful science entrepreneurs come from many diverse backgrounds and follow completely unique paths to success.
We recently hosted a webinar at Cicada Innovations as part of National Science Week where we explored three unique science entrepreneurship journeys: a researcher turned founder, a business leader turned founder, and a serial entrepreneur.
Their backgrounds and experiences may differ significantly, but these three science entrepreneurs prove that you can get to deep tech from all sides. But what you do need is to be resilient, driven, structured and – most importantly – goal-oriented.
Scientific researcher became founder
Prior to her foray into the world of entrepreneurship, Alison was a longtime researcher with an extensive career at Johnson & Johnson. This position was right in the middle of Alison’s highly scientific comfort zone.
But when the global financial crisis hit in 2009, Johnson & Johnson closed many research labs around the world and Alison was fired midway through her career.
This event, as she says, pushed her rather than pulled her to start her own business. And the rest is history.
Interestingly, Alison’s three decades of experience, which had to do her utmost to bring her scientific discoveries to fruition, has prepared her well for the level of resilience and perseverance you need as an entrepreneur.
She is also adamant about inventing for a purpose. As Alison says, “When I invent something, I invent it for a specific need”. She is endlessly inspired by the medical needs and the clinicians on the front line, who have become her inspiration, collaborators and early adopters.
CEO became founder
Peter’s many years in a highly structured business landscape have taught him that resilience and drive are excellent qualities, but they also need structure to allow large projects to come to fruition.
As Peter puts it, structure is the blueprint for eating an elephant. The solution is, of course, one bite at a time, but for Peter this means purposefully creating a structure that breaks the problem down into smaller projects that are easier (and less overwhelming!) to tackle.
Finding that big problem to solve in the first place is another problem, according to Peter.
His solution to this is to follow your passion, which for him meant finding projects that create an impact and legacy at all levels. Enter Sustinent, a company that uses innovative and sustainable biotechnology to turn agricultural green waste into new resources – one elephant bite at a time.
But Liesl goes one step further. She believes that success as a founder of deep tech requires being driven by an almost masochistic drive to succeed.
Liesl’s advice is based on three decades of establishing multiple companies, including one that was eventually acquired by IMB.
She also believes in evoking personal experiences to find your purpose.
Her childhood in abject poverty in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe led her to believe in a concept she calls the ‘valuation run drive model’. In her words, it’s not the company’s valuation, but the value your company gives to the world that matters. It’s about thinking big and tackling big problems, to build for the future.
Alison, Peter and Liesl are all living examples of how completely different expertise, life experiences and career learning can be used for a successful life as a science entrepreneur. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to follow.