From academic to startup founder – so far, so good

I recently saw a tweet asking if there were ex-academics interested in contributing to the Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS), and I jumped at the chance. I wish IMNIS were around when I was a researcher, as it would have helped me to transition from academia to industry sooner. The following is a description of my career path along with my take on the importance of networking, having a mentor, and collaborating with research organisations. I hope it is useful to researchers who are thinking of taking the leap and starting their own company.

The story so far …

I completed my PhD at the University of Wollongong, and worked as a research academic at universities in Australia and abroad for over ten years. I have developed sensors, computational modelling software, and virtual/augmented reality technology for quality assurance and training in radiotherapy. I loved undertaking the research itself. Being part of multidisciplinary and international teams discovering and disseminating knowledge for the betterment of humanity was a challenging and rewarding experience. However, I was frustrated by the vicious cycle of grant writing and the publish-or-perish game, and was never fond of lecturing. As such, I was not a good fit for a permanent academic position which resulted in me becoming a nomadic research academic on short-term contracts.

I attempted to leave academia on two occasions: the first to transform my filmmaking hobby into a career, the second to undergo officer training with the Australian Army. Both were intense learning and humbling experiences; however, neither went according to plan and I had to fall back on my PhD in Physics and return to academia.

I ultimately left academia in 2014 to start a company with a friend and fellow researcher. The company provided a computational modelling service to clients in healthcare, energy and resources, and defence sectors. We were rookies when it came to business, yet we gave it a go, learned on the fly, and established ourselves. I highly recommend having a co-founder when starting a company for the first time. It can be an overwhelming experience and having a co-founder distributes the workload and increases the chance that one of you is having a good day when the other is having a bad day. Although the company was progressing reasonably well, it was not scalable as it required a very specific set of skills to do the work. In 2016, we each decided to spin out our own technology development companies from the mothership.

The company of which I am Managing Director is Amentum Defence and Security. Amentum’s mission is to improve global security by solving problems in nuclear security, counter-proliferation, and CBRN (Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear) defence. Amentum is making steady progress: generating revenue from service-based contracts, and currently scoping development projects in collaboration with SMEs and research organisations. So far, so good.

On networking – invest in shoe leather

When starting out, it is tempting to solely focus on activities that generate revenue in the short term. Networking events that appeared to have little immediate benefit to the company have directly or indirectly led to new customers and project partners. I enjoy meeting new people and believe that you can learn something from everyone, so I really enjoy networking. Moreover, networking events offer an opportunity to meet those who have founded and grown their own companies, often resulting in impromptu mentoring sessions. I echo the advice that I was given: invest in shoe leather and attend as many networking events as you can.

The events of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) are great value. The presentations are insightful on both scientific and business levels, with the added bonus of sharing a meal with captains of industry and learn-ed professors. I highly recommend attending these events, listening, and taking notes.

Startup community events such as pitch nights, panel discussions, and fireside chats at incubators and co-working spaces are also worth attending. The overuse of buzzwords and hockey stick projections can be trying at times, yet these events are a great opportunity to share war stories with other startup founders, and to learn. I have learned a lot from the startup community – it generally adopts a ‘customer pull’ approach to technology development (eg. the lean startup methodology) in contrast to the ‘technology push’ approach of academic research (creating solutions to problems that may not exist).

On collaborating with academia – playing the long game

Time is the enemy of the startup and publicly funded research organisations (PFRO) are slow moving giants. If a startup with very limited resources collaborates with a PFRO, it runs the risk of going out of business waiting for things to happen; however, access to game-changing technology could provide an unfair advantage over the competition in the long run, resulting in a win-win for the startup and PFRO.

As a startup founder, I prefer to collaborate with a university on a high-risk project that is not critical to the core business activity. For example, development of a component that could significantly increase performance or reduce cost. Such a project could include a paid internship, PhD scholarship, or a small R&D service contract, and could be de-risked by leveraging matched funding opportunities such as CRC Projects, AusIndustry’s Accelerating Commercialisation, and the like.

If you don’t have a suitable collaborator in your existing network of researchers, I recommend contacting the Cooperative Research Centres Association and attending their networking events. Get to know the Business Development Managers of the PFROs, and they can introduce you to researchers as needed.

On mentoring – find a mentor

I was pleasantly surprised by how generous industry mentors are with their time, how ready they are to share their tales of success and failure, and how they genuinely want to help others succeed. A mentor can offer advice on all aspects of the business, be a sounding board for your ideas, introduce you to potential customers and partners, and provide advice on a personal level to help you survive the emotional rollercoaster ride that is startup life.

It pays to be humble, listen to and act on the advice that you are given. Also remember that it is your show – if you strongly disagree with a mentor’s advice because you believe it isn’t in the best interests of your company, do what you think is right and give your reasons.

I have monthly meetings with a mentor over coffee or lunch. The advice that I have received has helped me a great deal, and I look forward to giving back and becoming a mentor in future.

Take the leap!

To any research student or academic thinking of starting their own company, I highly recommend that you give it a go. You may be wasting your time and talents in academia writing journal articles that nobody reads, and the world needs more advanced technology companies that make a positive impact. If you do decide to take the leap, get ready for a challenging and rewarding experience, and make sure that you have support in the form of co-founders, a network, mentors, and loved ones. Godspeed!

About the author:

Dr Iwan Cornelius holds a PhD in Physics from the University of Wollongong. He has researched and published for over 10 years in the fields of detection and measurement of ionising radiation, computational modelling of ionising radiation environments, and virtual/augmented reality training tools for radiation workers. He has co-authored over 70 peer-reviewed journal publications. Iwan left academia in 2014 and is now Managing Director and founder of Amentum Defence and Security. Amentum’s mission is to improve global security by solving problems in nuclear security, counter-proliferation, and CBRN defence. Iwan is an active member of the Defence Industry, an Honorary Fellow of the University of Wollongong, and a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

 

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