Science and business don’t always go hand in hand. One is focused on searching out truths; the other, on searching out dollars. But when scientists with an entrepreneurial spirit, good communications skills and a little bit of financial backing can herd these opposites into alignment, they can experience that “eureka” moment that leads to a successful enterprise. Here are some that have found the secret.
Time is of the essence when a person suffers a stroke, and Insera Therapeutics may have found a way to put valuable minutes back on the clock. Its SHELTER device is a lengthy catheter that works to prevent clots that form in a stroke, potentially reducing long-term damage.
Insera Therapeutics was founded by two brothers, Vallabh Janardhan, an interventional neurologist, and Vikram Janardhan, an engineer, and the company's CEO.
Obviously, these are two smart brothers. But how do they manage to straddle the demands of science and business? Vikram said it’s all about the approach.
“One founder focuses exclusively on the business issues pertaining to the company and the other founder focuses on the science and clinical aspects of the product,” he explained. “Companies with an overall bias towards one or the other eventually fail.”
As scientists operating a small business, one of the biggest challenges they face is regulatory uncertainty, Vikram said. “Large companies have the manpower and bandwidth to keep an eye on changing governmental regulations. Smaller businesses don't.”
While the great innovations are often borne out of scientific brilliance, they need funding. Vikram strongly recommended any fellow science entrepreneur pursue government grants and use the resources and support offered by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. (Which helped the development of SHELTER).
Vikram explained that federal grants can be a terrific resource to help remove or minimize the technology risk associated with your core product.
“They also help attract attention from the venture capital market who like to know that the product idea has been vetted by a well-respected scientific panel within the specific government agency.” Clinical trials of SHELTER are forecasted in the U.S. in 2012 or 2013 and, upon success, Insera will seek regulatory approval shortly thereafter.
A new wave of biodegradable packing material has sprouted up (literally) to replace those annoying Styrofoam peanuts. Developed by Ecovative Design, EcoCradle is made of inedible agricultural waste and mushroom roots. Manufacturing it requires just one-eighth the energy and one-tenth the carbon dioxide of traditional foam-packing material. Once unpacked, EcoCradle can composted.
Ecovative Design and the technology behind its packing material was developed by former Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute undergraduates, Gavin McIntyre and Eben Bayer. The company also produces an environmentally sound home insulation product called “greensulate.” These entrepreneurial scientists have found the key to their science business success lies in strategy.
“We have fewer resources than large companies, so we have to be smart about when and where we enter markets. For instance, one of the reasons we launched our packaging product first is because of the lower barrier to entry when compared with building products,” Bayer said.
Bayer also credits much of Ecovative’s success to great advisers, like Burt Swersey, and organizations, like the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA), PopTech and Rensselaer.
“These helped train us, make connections, and get us started down the path of funding,” he said.
He suggests other scientists with an entrepreneurial spirit focus on boot-strapping, whether that comes in the form of grants, business plan competitions, or other funding sources that don’t involve borrowing money before presenting it to investors.
Mad Science is one science business that has as much to do with science as it does inspiring the wave of the future by “sparking imaginative learning.” Its after-school programs, in-class workshops, summer camp programs and special events offer children a fun, hands-on approach to science. The ultimate goal of any Mad Science production is for the kids to leave thinking that science is cool, according to Elke Steinwender, marketing and promotions manager.
A franchise since 1995, Mad Science has close to 200 locations in 26 countries, and reaches 6 million kids each year. Content is developed by an in-house team of educators and scientists. The company also asks its most important client for feedback through a Kid Advisory Board (K.A.B).
Steinwender said the best aspect of being in a science-related business is that it is dynamic and constantly changing. The program development team is always on the lookout for what is new and appealing to kids in the fields of science and technology. Of course, the excitement that the Mad Science programs bring to kids is a bonus in itself.
“Kids learn by doing and love to immerse themselves in activities so it's not difficult to keep them engaged,” Steinwender said. “There are so many incredible things to explore in science that it is not difficult to find the things that kids will like and be wowed by."
The ultimate internal goal for Mad Science is to grow and reach more children through science. “A child who believes that learning is fun and that science is cool means that they are more likely to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers,” Steinwender explained.
For marine enthusiasts, 2001 was the “Summer of the Shark.” For Eric Stroud, principal investigator of SharkDefense Technologies, it was also the year he began using his scientific prowess to defend mankind from sharks (and sharks from man).
He began using his own funds that year to research shark repellents, and by April 2003 had enough data on chemical repellents to incorporate and commercialize his findings. SharkDefense’s products include magnets, which essentially create a force field around sharks to keep them from penetrating an area. This can replace shark nets, which are commonly used to protect bathers in shark-infested beaches, but harm sharks and other marine life. SharkDefense also provides shark-repellent metal alloys, which reduce the unwanted shark catch when fishing for tuna and swordfish, in addition to a range of chemical repellents.
Stroud finds the greatest challenge in his entrepreneurial pursuits to be the scarcity of time, particularly because his business calls for frequent work at sea.
“If the business responsibilities take all day, then the research continues into the late night. This is a requirement if you are going to lead or define a business segment,” Stroud said.
Although his business is not communications-based, Stroud recognized the importance of relationships with key communicators and media to his success, both electronic and old-fashioned.
“We use our website to communicate the latest news, and the press usually comes to us to find out what is new and exciting. We're working with the smallest local news venues all the way to the Discovery Channel, NatGeo and MSNBC. Our scientific credibility and ability to communicate well are very important in this regard, and that's why I believe we have repeat 'business' with certain media outlets,” Stroud said. “When press is needed, we would either make some phone calls to our existing contacts. We have just recently begun to use Facebook and Twitter as well.”