Do I have to leave to launch?

June 18, 2016
John Quinn

It started with a diagnosis. In 2011, chemical and biochemical engineer Jessica Winter learned that she had breast cancer—ironically just 3 months after she had begun breast tumor studies in her lab at Ohio State University (OSU), Columbus. “These are the moments where you sit down and think about your life,” she says. “Have you gotten to where you want to be? If you were to die tomorrow, what would you regret?”

A professor and basic scientist, Winter lamented her work’s inability, at the time, to directly touch people’s lives. So when her students approached her later that year with the idea of entering a university-sponsored business plan competition, parlaying the lab’s nanotechnology advances to develop reagents for cancer research and diagnosis, Winter perked up. She promised to help to the extent that she was physically able—editing the business plan, for example, while undergoing treatment.

The group won the competition and used its prize money to launch Core Quantum Technologies (CQT), incorporating it in 2012. That began Winter’s entrepreneurial journey—one that is becoming increasingly common for established academic scientists.

But, as Winter soon learned, a science professor’s foray into entrepreneurship can lead to a dilemma: How do you run a company without having to exit academia? Even 5 years ago, the majority of faculty members handed off the entrepreneurial reins to a postdoc or graduate student. Professors rested content on the company’s advisory board while retaining the security of their hard-earned tenure.

In fact, Winter had lined up the company’s two co-founders—undergraduate student Kunal Parikh, who was interested in business, and postdoc Gang Ruan, who invented the technology that won the competition—to lead the fledgling company. But, as trainees often do, Parikh and Ruan eventually went their own ways, Parikh to an M.B.A.-Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and Ruan to build the new biomedical program as a faculty member at Nanjing University in China. The two remain active with the company, consulting and retaining equity, but do not run day-to-day activities. To keep things going, Winter’s business partner, Kristie Melnik, who had been consulting as Chief Operating Officer since the company’s launch, took over as interim CEO—a post she still holds—and Winter tapped her OSU-allotted 20% consulting time, typical of faculty appointments at many academic institutions.

Winter is one of a growing group of senior scientists seizing the entrepreneurial reins in new ways. Bolstered by a recent spate of competitions, incubators, and accelerator programs, “we are now finding that more and more [senior] faculty members are taking risks” with their business endeavors, says Rathindra DasGupta, a program director for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Division of Industrial Innovation and Partnerships. As life science and technology startups are coming off an unprecedented boon in growth and investment, professors are tapping consulting allowances, participating in entrepreneurial training, and negotiating leaves of absence to create and manage commercial ventures—and experimenting with new methods to make it all work.

Learn the business

In addition to entering a business competition, Winter and her team pursued entrepreneurial help. They applied to NSF’s Innovation Corps Teams Program (I-Corps), which boosts the economic impact of NSF-funded research by pushing researchers to take their ideas to the marketplace. Typically, a team of three—the principal investigator, a student or postdoc, and an industry mentor—receives $50,000 and a pass to a 7-week entrepreneurial training course, traveling to an I-Corps site for 3 or 4 days at the beginning and end of the training and participating in weekly seminars in between. “This process really teaches the scientific method for business in 7 weeks,” says I-Corps program director Lydia McClure. “That’s a pretty good value add.”

Over the following 6 months, team members must conduct face-to-face interviews with at least 100 different potential customers. From those, the fledgling entrepreneurs identify needs or problems to be solved, called “pain points,” and match them against the potential product’s applications. If team members find that there is a true market, they can then make a “go” decision and, for example, start a company, submit a small business innovation research (commonly referred to as SBIR) grant proposal, or make a pitch for venture capital funding.

Winter’s team learned that the cancer diagnostic market—for reagents that can simultaneously label dozens of so-called biomarkers on tumor cells—was nearly 30 times larger than her products’ basic research market—for compounds to simply label cells. With this information in hand, the team was equipped to make a crucial strategic business decision. “We pivoted to the clinical market because it is just such so much larger,” she says.

That strategy has paid off. To date, QCT has scored $600,000 from contest winnings, state and federal funding, and angel plus venture investment. The company is currently exploring how its nanotech reagents, called multidots, would best replace current chemical labeling methods in diagnostic tests.

Enlighten the students

Now in remission, Winter is finding that her choice to straddle the academic-entrepreneurial divide has an impact that reaches beyond cancer patients. In December 2015, Qirui Fan graduated from Winter’s lab with a doctorate in chemical engineering and a love of nanotechnology. When he tried to take his nanotech acumen to industry, however, he hit an impasse. “There are not many mature companies in nanotechnology,” he says, “and most are not hiring.”

Meanwhile, Winter—at the limits of what she could do with her consulting time—needed help at QCT, so she hired Fan as a research scientist and the company’s first employee. He is now fashioning the lab’s multidots—tiny crystalline beads encapsulated in a special coating—into an actual product to detect multiple biomarkers on tumor cells. The company has shown in pilot studies that the technology works, and it is on track to begin filing for approval with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in July.

Back in the academic lab, Winter’s students are also benefiting from QCT. They are interacting with Fan through meetings and idea sharing sessions, for example. “We look at the same problem, but very different parts,” says chemical engineer Gauri Nabar, a current graduate student in the lab. Nabar may measure a signal and identify a high level of variation in results. Fan will go on to figure out the reason for the variability so that QCT can assure a reliable product for customers. “It has been really synergistic,” Nabar sums.

That synergy also played out for robotics engineer and entrepreneur Ayanna Howard, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta. In 2012, Howard began developing an input device that would allow children with motor or visual impairments to operate tablet computers. The idea evolved into developing robots to talk, gesture, and interact with children as human therapists would. The robots guide and “emotionally support” kids with disabilities, Howard explains, coaxing them through therapy exercises via games and teaching the youngsters how to correct movements via feedback. “Everyone was saying, ‘This is wonderful,’” she recalls. “I was on fire.”

But as an academic, Howard felt that she could only “get the technology just so far.” Thus in 2013, she incorporated Zyrobotics (named after her son Zy). Alongside her postdoc and co-founder Hae-Won Park, Howard scored a grant from a spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation center in Atlanta. The organization wanted to develop a host of software applications for wireless products that would help individuals with disabilities. Howard’s project was a perfect fit.

Zyrobotics set up shop in Georgia Tech’s VentureLab, one of many startup incubators that offer mentorship, customer discovery training, and other business development services for faculty members and students. Like Winter, Howard took on dual academic and entrepreneurial roles, consulting with the company via her 20% time allotment.

Howard’s business endeavors have also influenced her mentees. Graduate student Sergio Garcia, for example, was awestruck when he learned about the company from co-founder Park. “Dr. Howard was already killing it at everything,” Garcia says, “as a professor, an adviser, a robotics chair. On top of that, she went ahead and started a company. I was impressed.” Seeing his adviser’s varied activities also affected his outlook for himself. “It opened the list of careers that I would consider after I graduate,” he sums.

Indeed, former Georgia Tech student Jin Xu, who worked on Howard’s projects while an undergraduate, did more than consider a job at a startup. He took one 2 months after he graduated in 2013—working as an app designer for Zyrobotics. Xu wanted the position as a springboard to begin graduate school. “I do not want to be a person after 5 years with a Ph.D. who only reads books and publishes papers,” says Xu, who worked part time at the company while pursuing his master’s degree at Georgia Tech. “From this company, I know you can be a Ph.D. student doing the cutting-edge research; you can generate papers, and you can also be an entrepreneur.” Xu plans to begin his doctoral studies in the fall, possibly staying on at Zyrobotics part time.

For her part, Howard intends to continue modeling an integrated career path. Zyrobotics now has 11 employees and has launched two hardware products, the latest of which is an accessible, electronic learning system for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) called Zumo. “My ultimate hope,” she says, “is to become the name in accessible STEM learning and a recognized leader in products developed using the mantra that all children learn differently.”

Even if that does not pan out, she still considers the entrepreneurial experience invaluable. Now every time she embarks upon an academic project, she asks herself why. What’s the market? Who would benefit? “Focusing on translating my research into a product has actually made my academic research so much stronger,” she sums.

To read the rest of this article, published in Science, please click here.