Science-to-business transition perilous
Researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the Desert Research Institute carry the hopes of business leaders that today’s laboratory discoveries will become tomorrow’s growth companies that create jobs in northern Nevada.
Among the biggest challenges, say some entrepreneurs who have worked with researchers, is teaching scientists and engineers how to build a profitable company.
Scientific discipline, they say, doesn’t always transfer well to the marketplace.
“They are creating technical excellence. They don’t necessarily have a sense of whether it is going to make a good business,” says Fred Patterson, who created two successful technology companies in Texas before he hit the road to teach business-building skills to scientists and engineers.
Patterson, who will be teaching a one-day class on business planning for engineers and scientists in Reno on July 19, says researchers often have difficult times reaching out for help from experts in marketing, finance, manufacturing and other disciplines that are needed to build a company.
“They tend to have pretty strong egos,” Patterson says. “They don’t want to release control.”
Not everyone shares that perception.
Nicola Kerslake, who worked as entrepreneur in residence at the Nevada Institute for Renewable Energy Commercialization before becoming a vice president of the nonprofit, says it’s equally important for marketing and finance people to learn what researchers are talking about.
And often, Kerslake says, the biggest challenge is teaching science to marketers rather than teaching marketing to scientists.
“As an entrepreneur, you have to be willing to pick up the science,” she says. “You can’t be 100 percent of one or the other.”
She points to Load IQ, a Reno company based on work by Hampden Kuhns and Morien Roberts, two researchers now on entrepreneurial leave from Desert Research Institute.
Load IQ’s founders developed the science essentially, a way for small outfits such as fast-food outlets to monitor energy use appliance-by-appliance then worked with Nevada Institute for Renewable Energy Commercialization to learn the business skills they needed to create a marketable product.
In the meantime, the joined forces with Bhuma Kandula, an experienced entrepreneur who’s heading the marketing strategy of Load IQ and helping the company develop strategic partnerships with bigger companies.
The tensions between science and business likely are declining already, Kerslake says, as engineering schools and business colleges join forces to create hybrid degrees that combine science with a master’s in business.
“That’s a typical profile that venture capitalists are looking for,” she says.
But Ky Good, a longtime engineer who today works on the business side of several startups, says the fundamental mindset of a good researcher often gets in the way of creating a strong business.
Good, the managing director of the C4Cube business incubator in Reno, says scientists and researchers sometimes feel that a product will reflect poorly on their professional reputations unless they include all possible features and polish those features to a high sheen.
“It’s called ‘feature creep,’ and it sometimes will kill the product,” says Good.
He acknowledges that’s difficult for anyone respected researcher or garage tinkerer to let go of a product that’s ready for market even if it doesn’t include every possible improvement.
“It depends whether you are trying to build a hobby or build a business,” he says. “Letting go is very hard to do.”
Some researchers who find it too difficult to let go, Good says, may be happier in a boutique research-and-develop facility that generates ideas that others can develop into market-ready products.
Patterson says even self-aware researchers who understand they will need the help of experts from other business disciplines sometimes struggle with the timing.
They want to make sure marketing and financial expertise is on board when it’s needed, he says, but they don’t want to overload a fragile little company with staff costs before it’s ready to sail.
“Now more than ever, there is widespread consumer awareness of how small businesses are the heartbeat of local economies.”