How do science innovations made possible by high magnetic fields make it from the laboratory into your life? To find out, we talked to Lawrence Tinker, a chemist and entrepreneur-in-residence at the Florida Institute for the Commercialization of Public Research, a not-for-profit organization funded by the state of Florida to help startup companies licensing technologies from universities and other institutions in the state.
What are some of the biggest pitfalls scientists face when trying to commercialize a discovery?
Believing that your technology is something that somebody wants. It happens a lot, that an inventor or scientist believes that their technology is the greatest thing. But then they get out in the real world.
What does it take for a scientist to be a successful entrepreneur?
An understanding of how business operates, an understanding of things beyond the academic world that they're in, because it's very different. (They need) an ability to look at the big picture and not focus on the science, but on the business side of things: How can I do this in a way that’s attractive to somebody so that they want this product?
But I'll have to say that scientists typically aren't good entrepreneurs. They get too married to their technology and they don’t really look at it from an arms-length standpoint and ask, "Does anybody care about this?"
What are the opportunities like for scientist-entrepreneurs today?
They are better today than they were 10 or 20 years ago. (Years ago,) there were a lot of large companies that had a lot of research facilities. It's not like that so much anymore. The business model has changed where larger companies look for smaller technologies. There is more opportunity for the small guy to make it by being recognized by the large companies.
What are some of the biggest hurdles science entrepreneurs face?
One thing that can be especially difficult for new entrepreneurs is not realizing that they have to constantly be raising money. They focus too much on the science and technology instead of focusing on the fact that they need to raise money. And they end up running out of money.
What advice would you give a prospective science entrepreneur?
Find a good, experienced entrepreneur to start the company. Be involved in it, but don't try to do it on your own. That's the first thing I would tell them.
So they need to consider what role they want to play?
If you want to be a startup, you need to be willing to quit your day job. If you don't, it will be difficult to make something happen.
What other advice would you give?
Don't be unwilling to look at alternative ways to do what you're trying to do. In other words, if you have a technology that you develop and you believe it should go in this market, be willing to look at the possibility that there is a better application in another market.
What's a cautionary tale from your own experience?
Be sure you understand there is a need for your technology in the market. Do everything you can to understand that. If you don't understand it, you're going to end up at a place where you have a product and nobody wants it. Be willing to pivot to something else quickly and pursue that technology.
What makes a good pitch?
Most investors, while they are interested in the technology, they don't really want to know all the technical details. They want to know: What are the things you need to do to get this to a commercial product? What's the timeline for doing it? How much money do you need to do it? What are your projected financials? And how am I going to make money at this?