Can a scientist be a good entrepreneur?

David Giltner, founder of TurningScience, discusses whether these two seemingly different career paths can successfully overlap


urning a new technology into a product is one of the most exciting things

that a scientist can do while working in the private sector. Starting one’s own company in order to commercialise new technology is even more exciting.

If it seems like we hear

more about entrepreneurship these days than ever, there is a good reason. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor research project has been tracking entrepreneurial activity around the globe since 1998. In 2020 it reported a significant increase in entrepreneurial activity over the last 10 years in

4 Electro Optics June 2021

all of the 16 economies tracked, including the United States and major countries in Europe and Asia.1

This may all sound great

for ‘entrepreneurial types,’ but can a scientist expect to take part in this exciting trend? The fact that scientists discover new principles and invent new technologies that find their way into startups is well known. But is a scientist the right person to commercialise a new discovery themselves? Can a scientist successfully start and build their own company? Many people believe the roles of ‘scientist’ and ‘entrepreneur’ to be very different, and that a

scientist might not make a good entrepreneur. My experience says that this is not the case.

Perception vs reality I suspect the idea that a scientist would not make a very good entrepreneur comes largely from the common perception of a successful entrepreneur: an adrenaline junkie with nerves of steel who is willing to take a big risk to gamble on a ‘one-in-a-million’ idea. We’ve all heard stories of the founders of well-known tech companies who had amazing insight or took a risk on an idea few believed would actually work. These outlier examples can leave many scientists thinking that perhaps they don’t have what it takes to start their own company and turn their idea into reality. Can these two seemingly different career paths ever overlap? In 2010 Malcom Gladwell

wrote a great article The Sure Thing: How Entrepreneurs Really

“These scientists-turned- entrepreneurs don’t match the heroic risk taker image”

Succeed2 . In it he described

how the illusion many of us have about what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur is largely just that – an illusion. Successful entrepreneurs are actually planners who patiently look for the right opportunity. They take a calculated risk based on detailed analysis they have done to make sure they have a good chance for success. Malcom’s description of successful entrepreneurs sounds a lot more like the scientists that I know. My own experience says

that scientists can in fact be successful entrepreneurs. Over the last 12 years I’ve interviewed many scientists working in industry, and many of them have been successful entrepreneurs. These scientists- turned-entrepreneurs certainly

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