Carve your own future

At a recent birthday dinner I met a young woman who had just finished Year 12. I asked her what she was going to do next, and she indicated a desire to study science at university. Then she mentioned something that really struck me – she shyly suggested that she wanted to do a combined Bachelor of Science/Bachelor of Business Studies. She wanted to know if this was a “really stupid idea”. I actually think it’s one of the smartest ideas I’ve heard in a long time. Let me tell you why.

When I was at school I had several amazing science teachers. But it was the combination in Year 12 of an amazing teacher (Lynn Bean, Lake Ginninderra College, 1991) and a fascinating course (Biochemistry) that awakened in me an irresistible longing to be a scientist. I applied for and received a place at the Australian National University studying a dual Arts/Science degree. In the blink of an eye I was doing my Honours at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, and then slogging my way through a PhD at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne. This was followed by a four-year stint in Heidelberg, Germany, working as a postdoctoral fellow.

Then it happened. The shrinking opportunities, the virtual absence of jobs in my field, not being offered positions I was more than qualified for – my “beautiful life” as a scientist was critically endangered. In desperation to pay my mortgage and avoid housework, I entered the public service.

At first I thought I could cope. I worked really hard, brought my entire intelligence to my job, made friends, partook in meetings. I had a couple of great positions, where I almost didn’t miss my life in the lab. But eventually the scientist in me resisted, and I broke down and left. That’s when I discovered my Utopia.


Through pure chance I started work with a company in the USA, and started freelancing doing biostatistics and meta-analysis. I was working as a scientist, supervising young minds, creating something useful and important. I could work from home, which was fantastic, and I was earning as much as I did before I left my “proper job”. I was so happy. But there were several important challenges I was entirely unprepared for.

I lacked business skills. I was suddenly a small business owner, and I didn’t know what that was. I had to set up super accounts and business banking accounts and report GST and pay salaries – and I had no idea what I was doing. I had to pay an accountancy firm to set up my business and help me to understand my obligations and opportunities. I live in fear that I will do something horribly wrong and be sent a huge bill for tax or superannuation or…I don’t even know what!

There are amazing opportunities out there for scientists with great ideas. Just look at the crowd funding platforms – not having a large amount of capital to invest is no longer a barrier to creating your business. But I fear for many of these start-ups as they negotiate contracts, loans, make budgets, pay salaries – expertise is needed, but scientists don’t have it.

If you haven’t seen it, take a look at the comedy show “Silicon Valley”. Early in the show we see a tech giant offering a young inventor (Richard) $200,000 to get his compression algorithm start-up into business. The team arrives at the tech giant’s office to pick up their cheque. He asks for their business plan, their budget, their risk analysis. The young guys thought they’d walk in and just pick up the cheque. In the next shot you see the inventor at home on Wikipedia looking up the definition of a business plan. Richard and the team were lucky in that they secured the services of Donald, an expert business analyst. It is not until Donald comes on board that the company has any chance of success.

Business savvy

Sadly however, the average person trained in business understands as little about science as scientists understand about business. A business mind has trouble working with the uncertainty that surrounds scientific research. They don’t understand the true lack of knowledge – and worse – the complete lack of interest that scientists have in legal or business areas. The result of this culture clash can be seen every day in university intellectual property departments, where lawyers and business people try to patent the brilliant ideas of the scientists they work with. Scientists unknowingly, and sometimes uncaringly, contaminate their important work with the intellectual property of others, making any product worthless, but see themselves as being above the worldly concerns of money and business. This attitude may have worked in the past, but times are changing.

Today’s young scientists – women and men – can respond to ever-shrinking job opportunities and challenging work conditions in universities by making their own future. There is plenty of capital and space for the smart university graduate with a great idea – if they have the business skills to back themselves up. Only someone trained in both business and science will have the skills to make a great idea into a profession. So instead of eschewing the world of business, today’s young scientists can carve their own future in a world where the pure academic track is becoming increasingly less attractive. I certainly wish I had been one of them.

About the author:

Kerry Mills is an independent consultant and academic from Canberra, Australia. She majored in genetics and microbiology at the Australian National University, before completing a PhD in molecular parasitology at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. Kerry then moved to Heidelberg, Germany, where she undertook postdoctoral work in molecular virology, researching the early events in Hepatitis B virus infection. After a stint in the public sector, Kerry set up her own business, Systematic Solutions, which specialises in undertaking and training in the field of systematic review and meta-analysis. She also provides scientific consultancy services for academics, non-profit organisations and companies.

This article was originally published on Women in STEMM Australia
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The power of hindsight: PhD to patent attorney

Having recently been asked to contribute to this blog, I needed to pause and think. Given it is some 25 years since I completed my PhD and proceeded to forge a career as a registered patent attorney, I did wonder whether my experience of 25 years ago would still ring true to the current generation of PhD candidates.  Anyway, it is not for me to conclude that.  All I can do is tell at least some of my story and leave that issue for you to consider.

With 25 years under my belt, I can look with rose coloured glasses back at my time as a PhD student with a large degree of fondness. It was a time when one could pursue a line of academic enquiry, engage in free thinking, bounce thoughts and ideas off interesting colleagues, and do great research.  Of course, my rose coloured glasses conveniently obscure that it was also a time of hand to mouth existence, endless knock backs to funding requests, interminable waits for equipment to be built and/or repaired, and significant frustration.  I do sometimes wonder if anything has changed.

Fairly early on in my PhD I had a feeling that while I loved science, it would not be the career for me.  I sensed that I would be doing something different. And that something would be outside on the academic world.  The question was what?

Fortunately, one day on fronting up to the lab, my supervisor announced that we were off to the CBD. The reason, to see a patent attorney.  Why, well somewhat surprisingly for the time, my university had agreed to patent an invention I was working on.

That day spent describing my research to a patent attorney opened my eyes.  I was impressed by a number of things, including the intellectual rigour of the questioning, the speed at which the attorney understood what was being described, and their ability to convert that description into a written document that I now understand was a patent specification.  Oh, and the “free” sandwiches they offered during the meeting were great as well. No seriously, I was enormously impressed. I had not expected to be dealing with someone scientifically trained and the fact that a patent attorney had such a background was a revelation.

While at that stage I was two years away from completing my PhD, I followed my hunch that this was a potential career for me and began the process of seeking to find employment as a patent attorney.

Over a period of many months, I sought to understand the role, what was needed, how one qualified, and the different firms that might be potential employers.  I also recall askance looks from family, friends and fellow students when I said I was committing to still further university study (in IP law) following what by then had been 8 years of university life.

What I only realised in hindsight was that that the time spent understanding this potentially new career was really important, in some ways more important than the subject of my PhD.  It demonstrated desire and a willingness to learn.  What that effort also taught me was that one never can be ill prepared when dealing with the commercial world.  Time and effort to prepare are always worthwhile.  When considering potential new employees, an academic background might open a door, but other things are likely to see you invited through that door.  I still remember the delight at being offered a job as a trainee patent attorney at FB Rice.  25 years on, it is easy to look back and know I made the right decision.

In considering the transition from academia to industry, what I know I didn’t appreciate at that point was how many other skills I would need to develop if I was going to have a successful career.  Like many scientists and engineers, for example, I needed to develop my abilities in human interaction.  Don’t hide behind the stereotype of the nerdy scientist or awkward engineer (if that’s your rap) that has no social skills.  Such skills can be learned.  There are no “back room“ roles in industry any more. You have to be engaging, and willing and capable of engaging people in conversation (even those that don’t understand your science).  So, develop those skills, and seek feedback on how you can improve.  You’ll never regret it.

What else did I learn through in those early years?

You probably know more than you think you do, but you still have much to learn.  Most people are prepared to help you and will be (sometimes incredibly) generous with their time.  Don’t waste such opportunities and be thankful.  Also, in 20 years, please remember that generosity and pass on your time to the next generation.

Also, people will be impressed that you have a PhD, for about 5 mins. After that, other aspects about you are way more important. For example, do you treat reports with respect? Do you follow up when you say you will? Are you prepared to muck in and work as part of a team to meet a deadline?  Ultimately, how you act as a human being will be way more important than your PhD.

About the author:

Brett Lunn is Managing Partner of FB Rice, and one of Australia’s most experienced and pragmatic intellectual property (IP) specialists. Having moved largely to an advisory capacity in recent years, Brett specialises in providing strategic advice in the corporate sphere, advising a range of businesses from corporations and SMEs to start-ups and research institutions.


Transitioning from PhD to Industry: An unclear path with significant challenges and rewards

My journey post-PhD was a baptism of fire. Though I had been intimately exposed to the early commercialisation activities of a technology to which I contributed during my PhD, I still found myself under-employed for a period of 2 years before landing a secure role. It was depressing; I lived off the patience and generosity of my family which had already endured my PhD journey, while scraping money together by engaging as consultant with various start-up companies on short contracts – something I didn’t entirely want to do. I also went back to my retail job I had as an undergrad for a short period of time when my situation became dire. However, it taught me a lot about what not to do, and there were some fulfilling career rewards that money could never buy.

Lesson 1 – Run your post-PhD transition activities as a small business

With the very basic knowledge I’d gleaned about medical technology commercialisation, I used the reasonably large network I’d established during my PhD to seek out any opportunity to add experience to my CV. I was mostly unpaid, or paid very little for these engagements. However, my key goal was to break the “not-enough-experience-to-get-the-job-but-need-the-job-to-get-the-experience” vicious cycle and establish my reputation, so I endured the exploitation to maintain some cash flow, and leverage to other, bigger opportunities. I performed these engagements primarily as a sole trader consultant.

This meant learning how to operate as small business and learning everything I could about the ecosystem and people I was talking to in order help them solve their problems. As a young consultant with a newly-minted PhD, life isn’t easy. You don’t have enough “grey hair” to be seen as an experienced consultant, and you’ll be competing with other experienced people. It’s also likely you’ve not had any real commercial experience. You’re answerable only to yourself for finding new consulting and employment opportunities through networking activities to maintain cashflow, and only you can develop and maintain your own reputation.

To be successful:

  • Adopt the start-up mindset to understand and solve your clients’ problems
  • Provide a point of difference against other competitor consultants•
  • Work your butt off to prove you’re capable and worth re-/hiring for the next contract
  • Behave like a professional (doing what you say you’re going to do, and learning how to act professionally by asking and observing mentors, and people you respect)
  • Know what’s going on in your area as a matter of professional practice, and not because someone told you to
  • Monitor and maintain cash flow
  • Know your tax obligations intimately (or getting a good accountant)
  • Network a lot (needed to manufacture serendipity for new opportunities and chance discussions/engagements)

Where academia often undervalues one’s contributions, there is nothing wrong with earning money and acting like the CEO of a business – bills need to be paid.

Lesson 2 – Establish a diverse mentor network as your advisory board

No-one knows everything, including experienced CEOs. That’s one reason why companies have Boards, and so should you. Not only do they (hopefully) demonstrate professional practices in the areas you’re aligned with, they can act as your extended radar, seeking out new connections and informing you of potential opportunities, but they also steer you away from risk areas.

I am grateful for my mentors for their help with the following:

  • Helping me to focus on my contractor responsibilities when my client was on shaky ground
  • Alerting me to the full nature and scope of legal risks I was only partially aware of following some naïve decisions I made
  • Listening and reflecting when other people close to me couldn’t understand my post-PhD journey
  • Providing me with the right connection at the right time, which put me on the path to a secure role

An IMNIS mentor is a great start, but additional mentors provide diversity in advice and guidance.

Lesson 3 – Unless you are a founder,  carefully weigh up the pros and cons of working for pre-investment start-ups

Start-ups are trendy, sexy, and you learn lots by working in them. However, pre-investment STEM start-ups are especially risky unless you (or your legal advisor/generous mentors help you) put in place appropriate contractual protections for all parties.


  • Contracts are short – this affects the perception of your employability when HR managers at more established companies evaluate your CV, and form an impression that you can’t hold a job. Sad, but true.
  • The founders are often technical experts, but not necessarily commercial experts, or understand the difference between a technology and a product. Unless there is a strong management team, it’s easy for such companies to lose their way, and you can potentially be forced to follow along.
  • If you’re an employee, you may have shares as part of an employee share option plan, as start-up pay can be lower than market averages. As a contractor, you’re not entitled to anything outside of the contract value and benefits you’ve negotiated. I hazard a guess that shares for contractors would not typically be offered, and as a young STEM contractor, it’s hard to command a high contract value. Low pay plus short contracts, with no long-term share options? Be wary!

It’s slightly safer to work for a start-up company that has received some funding from professional investors (venture capital funds or angels, rather than or in addition to friends, fools and family). They generally undertake a level of commercial due diligence to ensure that the investment they intend to make into technology is sound, and that they get their money back at some point. Investors typically appoint a nominated representative to the Board of the company to ensure their interests are met. If the investors have sufficiently large equity share, they can exert their agenda and influence over the company. This situation may provide a more stable employer or contractor environment, as investors will typically focus company activities so milestones are met. As a young contractor or employee in a start-up, stability and the company’s clarity of focus is essential for a regular wage and CV growth.

Though there are many other topics and details I could cover, I hope these 3 major lessons provide some foundations for your business acumen and your next steps, wherever they take you. Never underestimate your worth – a commercial mindset paired with the ability to break down and solve highly complex problems is a force to be reckoned with.

About the author:
Andre Tan is a medical technology innovator, biomedical engineer and scientist. Between 2005 and 2014, he worked on developing a non-invasive, pain-free electrical stimulation treatment for chronic constipation at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. Some of his involvement with this research led to the eventual launch a medical device start-up, GI Therapies, in 2012. This exposure set the scene for his interest in medical technology innovation, regulatory affairs and commercialisation. Since completing his PhD through the University of Melbourne in 2014, he has worked across a range of pre-investment Australian medtech start-up opportunities, in both technical and commercial roles.

Over the course of his postgraduate studies and early career, he has been involved with AusBiotech, the Australian Science & Innovation Forum and the Swinburne Design Factory in a variety of volunteer and mentoring capacities. He has also blogged extensively about his pre-PhD to industry transition, which can be found at here.

 Andre is currently the Business Development Manager for Zicom MedTacc, a medical technology accelerator based in Singapore. The primary focus of his and his team’s role is to bring their portfolio companies and their technologies to Australia and New Zealand. He is currently seconded to one of the portfolio companies, HistoIndex, which is commercialising a next-generation tissue analysis system for more precise imaging and quantification of fixed tissue.


PhDs in Industry – a path to the top

I left CSIRO around 25 years ago. I think it was fair to say I was successful there. I had tenure, grants, and ran a good-sized research group. But I realized that the next thirty years of my career would all, roughly, be the same, and that prospect scared me. Many of the years that followed were very tough, but they were exciting. In writing this blog I was trying to think of what motivated me to move out of academia (CSIRO is pretty much academia). Why wasn’t it enough, at least for me?

“Scientists and engineers! Always on tap, never on top”

These were words my mother’s father uttered to my engineer father on their first meeting, often repeated to me. My grandfather had dragged himself from illiteracy and abject poverty to a knighthood, so he had earned some right to comment on life.

When I later quit being an employee and with a close friend started a company, those words of grandfather were still a motivation. Why was I solving problems for others who knew less about our actual work, but mysteriously managed to be in charge?

And maybe my grumpy Grandpa was right. The attitudes of many Australian scientists and engineers often seem disempowering. They don’t expect to be in charge, outside academia they often never quite aspire to the top job, they leave that for others. But a fact of life is that if you don’t believe you deserve authority you will rarely acquire it, irrespective of your skills base; greatness is rarely thrust upon you.

Scientists in industry

This lack of respect for STEM professionals as corporate leaders is reflected in public attitudes. When I was running a public biotech company, I was often told by shareholders that, as a scientist, I shouldn’t be in charge. I was asked when was “the real manager” taking over? Can you ever imagine an accountant or banker being told they couldn’t run a finance company?

Why the persistent Australian perception of the commercially useless boffin? There are some very successful STEM PhDs. Andrew Mackenzie successfully runs our biggest company, BHP Billiton – but did you know he is a widely published PhD research geochemist, that he has publications in Nature? The board of nearly every German company of any type is littered with PhDs, and the US is knee-deep in successful entrepreneurial (sometimes billionaire) scientists. But apparently this doesn’t register in Australian consciousness.

I would hazard that many of you undertaking PhDs secretly think something you don’t say out loud; you see yourself as the best and the brightest. And so you should. But if the only ambition you have is to become increasingly more expert on an increasingly narrower technical subject: well, to me you are missing your full potential. Don’t get me wrong, research is valuable and can be exciting. But it’s not the only thing there is. Your PhD is a chance to learn to think, to plan, to analyze, and work at a daunting task and succeed! To become skilled at working with imperfect information, become used to living with uncertainty to ultimately making sense of it all and communicating complex things clearly…. These are big skills, and they are not common.

So, when I joined with the Foundation donors to co-found the Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS), my personal aims for IMNIS reflected my experience. Yes, I wanted more academic-industry collaborations. I would certainly like to see an Australia where careers could cross from industry to academia and back.

But what I really want are PhDs in STEM who see that the world outside academia is also a natural career path, and a path that  leads to the top. Australian PhDs that not only make discoveries but also found companies, run major organisations, show leadership and achieve real change.

And if you want wealth, well that too.

About the author:

Dr Tony Radford AO is a senior biotech executive with over 30 years experience in pharmaceuticals and diagnostics. He obtained a PhD from La Trobe University,  and then joined CSIRO for 8 years. As a member of the CSIRO research team that invented the QuantiFERON method for Cellular Immune based diagnostics, he received the CSIRO medal of Research Achievement. In 1993 he joined the pharma development company AMRAD, later acquired by CSL, initially managing external research projects,  then as head of development managing both pre-clinical and clinical research teams. In 2000, he co-founded Cellestis Limited. Cellestis listed on the ASX, and developed more accurate and user-friendly tests that made QuantiFERON the gold standard worldwide for diagnosis of tuberculosis infection. Cellestis trialed these products extensively, and registered and sold products in every major world market. The company had offices in the USA, Germany, and Japan, with staff in many more countries. Dr Radford was Cellestis CEO from founding until its acquisition by QIAGEN NV in 2011 for $400m. For his contributions to tuberculosis diagnosis and enterprise he has received the Clunies-Ross Award for application of technology, and is a Distinguished Alumni of La Trobe University. He was awarded the Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2016. He is a founding director of the IMNIS initiative, and director of the Radford Foundation, a philanthropic trust.  Dr Radford is a non-executive director of Nucleus Networks (2013- ) and Genetic Signatures (2015-) and an active adviser and investor in many other biotech/medtech companies. Dr Radford is a co-founder of IMNIS and was appointed to the IMNIS Expert Advisory Panel in 2017.


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.