Seema Singh
I write about sci-tech and all things that lie at the intersection.

Entrepreneurship Lessons I Learnt from Scientists

Update: As some of you have inquired, yes this post went missing for a few days when our blog site crashed earlier this month.


No, it’s not an oxymoron, certainly not at a fundamental level. To my mind, both scientists and entrepreneurs are in a creative process. Both start by experimenting with an idea, move forward by ‘pivoting’, and if failure stares at the finishing line, they brush off and get back to experimentation.

For many reasons Indian academic institutions haven’t unleashed their entrepreneurial force, even though they only had to look to the silicon, computer, and biotechnology revolutions in the world for inspiration. However, there are signs that the staff rooms on the campuses are warming up to the idea. It’s early days and requires a big cultural change to become a movement, but as this feature in Forbes India shows we could be at the cusp of this change.

There’s one more reason why these profiles (on Sedemac, Limberlink, i2n, Vyome, NanoSniff) are important. We are today swept by a tidal wave of apps-age entrepreneurs, who mostly give us products to game, network, buy and sell stuff, and monitor our lives in the real and virtual world. Clearly, when it comes to entrepreneurship, a shift has occurred from ideas to deals. Nothing wrong with that, but we haven’t yet solved all the problems around us. Even globally a very small number of entrepreneurs, much smaller in India, are interested in plumbing – working in areas of robotics, genetics, cancer cure, batteries, medical devices, water, diagnostics…you name it.

Investor and instructor at Stanford, Peter Thiel, who came under spotlight last month for selling Facebook shares worth $400 million, has a mission statement on his Fund’s website that says it aptly, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

That was one reason behind looking at academic institutions and the professors there who have decided to take the plunge. Before I list some lessons learnt from them, let me add a disclaimer: I’ve never been a student of management. The only brush with management teachers I’ve had is a couple of meetings with late CK Prahalad (including a boot camp of his that I attended at IIIT-B) and a few discussions with Henry Jacoby at Sloan School (mostly around global climate change debate) that I had during the year I spent at MIT many years ago.

So you may find these lessons to be the regular stuff from entrepreneurship tutorials, but read on for their context, if not for the subtitle.

The minimum viable product could be in your backyard: Rudra Pratap, chairman of the Centre for Nano Science and Engineering (CeNSE) at the Indian Institute of Science and founder of i2N technologies (profiled in this feature) also runs a large nanoelectronics users program for teachers from across the country. What he observed was that most of the far flung institutions in India either don’t have instruments to teach nanotechnology or they are too expensive to be given to students for learning or tinkering.

So the idea of a company that could provide knocked-down, inexpensive versions of high-end microscopes came up. For instance: A Scanning Tunneling Microscope + a module to make Atomic Force Microscope; an add-on module to make Electrostatic Microscope; another module to make Near Field Optical Microscope.

But the fact that he himself faced serious issues with the servicing of these instruments, which can remain unused for months if they conk off, made him turn to fellow researchers. Turns out there are many takers for this. The reason why the physics department of Columbia University wants to use i2n instruments is the same as cited by others in India. Abhay Pasupthay of Columbia says he wanted customized solutions to fit their needs in the teaching labs and most companies in the US and Europe were not willing to do this type of customization or charged a very high price for customer product. In addition, the open source software-based electronics that i2n uses, will students a better chance to learn and improve.

Professor Anuj Dhawan at IIT-Delhi, who recently relocated fromNorth Carolina State University,US, is buying this product because he can customize it according to his needs. Due to poor servicing from overseas companies, your final result could get stuck for months if these machines break down, he says. Dhawan, who works in area of nano-photonics and bio-sensors, himself plans to start a venture inIndia– a big reason he decided to come back after 13 years.

(In entrepreneurship jargon this could well be called “Customer Development”.)

Build it and they’ll come: We are all tired of hearing about “unemployability” stories of Indian engineering students. So when professors V Vinay and Swami Manohar were looking for their next venture, they decided to dip into their years of teaching experience to figure out what vexed them most: It was the fact that most engineers inIndia can’t build anything. (Read the story for details)

Vinay explains it like this: Every year one million students enroll for engineering courses in over 3500 colleges acrossIndia. Half of the incoming folks, about 500,000, take the IIT entrance exam but only 10,000 get selected. From the IITs, NITs, and other Tier II colleges, only about 15,000 “competent” engineers enter the talent pool every year. But he believes with some systematic effort, at least 50,000 to 60,000 of the 700,000-800,000 graduating students every year can be turned into competent, problem-solving engineers.

They are building supplementary modules for various subjects (starting with computer science). To measure the impact on ground, they have devised J-CAT (JED-I Competency Assessment Test). When they administered it to 1500 students in nine colleges, the average score in a test of 20 was 9.27. In crude comparison, a small sample in one of the IITs got the average score of 15. Vinay thinks a score of 16-17/20 is a good measure of competence.

So now that they have some tools of intervention and a measure to test their effectiveness, many colleges and companies think using these courses can at least help a section of engineers.

Build an organization you’d want to enter every morning: As many entrepreneurs begin to scale, they forget some of the softer sides of entrepreneurship, or even reasons for leaving their previous job. Workspace environment may not be the first thing when someone is starting out but it certainly is crucial in the long run, especially if you want to build a company to last. (Exception: Even among the academics there’s a breed that builds companies for exits.)

Vijay Chandru, founder-chairman of Strand Life Sciences, and a former computer science professor from IISc, says in 10 years he’s built a company that he looks forward to every morning. “As academics we gather talent, we have affinity for bright people and vice-versa. These are not traditional businessmen or business women. It’s important to give them a stimulating environment,” he says.

Indeed, at Vyome Biosciences, Shiladitya Sengupta (who is also a co-founder of Invictus Oncology and Mitra Biotech) says he gives people 20 percent free time to pursue their personal interest in research and encourages them to publish in high-impact journals.

We certainly hope many more academics will join the journey. India needs its own version of the Maker Movement.

Last week Cambridge University and IISc inaugurated an innovation network to facilitate entrepreneurship. Cambridge University vice chancellor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz talked about the “Cambridge Phenomenon”. How this city of about 100,000 people has spun off 1400 hi-tech companies in the last 50 years, 11 of those are valued at over ₤1 billion and have created 45,000 jobs.

This network, said Borysiewicz, has its eye on the big picture. So do we!

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There's one more commonality between the two, although an unpleasant one. The way science is practised today, esp in the west (and will soon come to India), scientists are like small business owners. They have to sell their ideas, get grants, which are increasingly being used to not only fund the labs but support their salaries. They are constantly marketing and selling to other scientists, govt, industry. It's also a consequence of higher education mess that the US is in--create fancy infrastructure and expect the grants to repay the loans.
Seema Singh
Until Dec 31,2013, I was a Senior Editor at Forbes India and I usually wrote about science and technology on this blog. I believe while we may have settled into consuming the nicely packaged final products of science - technology being a hand maiden of science - we are distancing ourselves from all the effort that goes into it. This blog was an attempt to bring occasional peek into those efforts and ideas.
I've been a journalist for 17 years and have written for The Asian Age, The Times of India, Mint, Red Herring, IEEE-Spectrum, Cell, New Scientist and others.
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Seema Singh
November 29, 2012 13:35 pm by SS
There's one more commonality between the two, although an unpleasant one. The way science is practised today, esp in the west (and will soon come to India), scientists are like small business owners. They have to sell their ideas, get grants, which are increasingly being used to not only fund the la...