Academia, Startups, Small Enterprises: Do I Need to Choose?

Holly at the RSC Emerging Technologies Competition 2013, presenting the HydRegen technology

Holly at the RSC Emerging Technologies Competition 2013, presenting the HydRegen technology

Author: Holly Reeve Edited by: Burcu Anil Kirmizitas

Holly Reeve is a Postdoctoral Researcher and Co-Investigator on the HydRegen Project at the Department of Chemistry, University of Oxford.

Working in the biotech field, it’s hard to decide which sector - academia, start-ups, SMEs, big pharma - is the most innovative, which is making the most impact and which is providing the best work environment. In fact, is each sector pushing the others to do better and achieve more to stay competitive? When it comes to choosing which to work in, how much does it matter? And to be successful, should we pick a single goal?

I heard a careers’ talk recently, and it pushed me to challenge how I think about my future. We were told that some of the most successful people never picked a single career path. Mostly, they gently nudged along 4 or 5 possible career paths, with their favourite changing over time, until one paid off. Successful people are flexible. Successful people take great opportunities when they see them. Successful people challenge themselves all the time. So, should we be focusing more on making the next best decision? Not staying where we feel safe, but not necessarily leaving if we are still learning and not worrying too much about the more distant future that we have far less control over? With that said, surely we shouldn’t lose sight of our current path, of career plan A – isn’t this where we get the drive from?

I am currently working in a university, towards spinning out a company based on my DPhil research. A pretty focused goal and career plan! I often joke that I feel ‘challenged’ every day, and maybe that is an exaggeration. But my current role does continually demand that I put myself in challenging situations. Whether that’s giving an important presentation, making a call on changing a research direction or coming up with a new commercial strategy for our research, I am constantly searching for new information, new ideas and new training opportunities to make sure I continue to deliver. My nightmare is finding that I’m holding my research back rather than being involved in pushing it forwards, and as my research project grows, it’s increasingly tricky to stay at the front. On the other hand, having this ‘career plan A’ (spinning out a company) gives me the drive and passion to push myself harder.

I know that there are many obstacles and challenges on the path to commercialising research, one or more of which we may not be able to overcome. This means that I have to think about alternative career plans. Not only think, but actively ‘nudge them along’. With the recent career talk in my mind, do I need to redefine my 2-year plan? To concentrate on ‘career plan A’, but to make sure I keep other avenues – roles in academia, startups and industry – open? And how should I go about this?

In October 2016, I interviewed Alize Pennec, a former colleague who moved from an academic research group to its newly formed spin-out company and I wrote an article for Science Innovation Union titled: ‘Academia vs Start-up: as a research scientist, what would you choose?’. I learned that there are risks and advantages associated with working in both sectors, some challenges are the same, and some are different. The other thing I learned is that neither academia nor startups provide a ‘guaranteed’ or even well-defined career plan. So, as people involved in research and science, aren’t we all in the same boat, regardless of which sector we are in? Should we in fact, be learning from one another?

I have attended a whole range of business and entrepreneurship training sessions over the last 5 years and have been surprised by how big an effect this had on me as a researcher. Not just for the commercially relevant research, but for writing grant applications, for presenting my research, for better understanding how teams of people operate and for learning how to deliver projects on time. I have come to believe that academic research scientists can learn from entrepreneurship and business training as much as scientists in companies can learn from academic scientific methods and advances.

New experiences, new challenges, new knowledge – these all make us better at our jobs, better at being researchers and better at pushing the boundaries of our area of science: regardless of what sector we are working in. But these same things also make us more employable. For me, in the future, when I’m on a training course, or when I hear about a new opportunity, I will think about how this feeds into what I’m doing at the moment, but also stop and think about what I’m gaining for my future. I will focus on developing skills that can be easily translated for different roles and/or for working in different sectors.

Let’s worry less about what sector we are in, follow the science, go where our skills will be most important / most highly regarded, and give ourselves the best chance of succeeding.