From PhD to entrepreneurship

Michal Lipka is a 3rd year PhD student in the School of Engineering and Materials Science working on a novel technology to create 3D hydrogel platforms for (in vitro) human tissue models. Here he tells us about being an entrepreneur. 

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‘You can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets’

(A. Schwarzenegger)

In the first year of my PhD I decided to take part in a business plan competition (OneStart 2013) proposing a spin-off company based on a technology I am developing at Queen Mary. That was my first serious contact with entrepreneurship and I enjoyed it so much that since then I have continued learning about entrepreneurship and kept looking for opportunities to… succeed.

For some reason many people (and I think especially us scientists) perceive entrepreneurship – or ‘doing business’ – as something deprived of any bigger goal. We see it as making money and that is it. Sir Richard Branson in one of his books (Business Stripped Bare) said that doing business is about ‘turning what excites you in life into capital, so that you can do more of it and move forward with it’. And that is exactly why I find it so interesting to combine business with science – so I could do more of it!

My good friend from the PhD hub, Adam Marinovic, and I share Sir Richard’s vision and we often discuss in our free time how to turn the science we do into something more than publications and conference posters. We want to see society benefiting from our work. So around two months ago, we decided to propose Adam’s PhD work as a spin-off company – and we applied to Virgin Pitch to Rich 2015 Competitions with a project we proudly named Level Up! Technologies.

In his lab, Adam produces cheap and non-toxic fluorescent nanoparticles. They could be used in different areas such as bioimaging, photovoltaics, fluorescent inks or even solar cells (how cool is that?!). We thought a good move would be to propose a cheap and non-toxic product first to the bioimaging sector, but we knew we would need someone who would help us with eventual R&D to improve it. We then asked a brilliant scientist, postdoc Dr Esther Tejeda-Montes, if she would be willing to help us with that. Fortunately she said yes and our team was ready.

‘There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?’

(R. Kennedy)

To take part in Pitch to Rich 2015 we had to fill out an application form, create a logo, shoot some pictures, and record a 90 second video with our elevator pitch (many thanks to our friend Sevda Dogan for all the image and video work). Since we were all doing this in our free time I think that the end result was great. We were very happy not only with the visual content but also with the effort we had put into filling out the application. In a very short time we managed to look at things like risks, competitors, our USPs (Unique Selling Points), we scanned already existing patents and companies’ reports, we compared our product to commercially available ones, prepared short financial analysis, and much more.

So after we had uploaded everything online we had to start collecting votes from the public. These votes were critical to get us to the next round. Although the idea generated a lot of excitement, we did not manage to obtain enough votes (we needed well over 500 votes to pass and we have collected 391). Obviously we were a bit disappointed, and not just by the fact we did not get through, but because of the technical difficulties Virgin encountered, which we believe reduced our chances to pass. The main issue was that our proposal appeared online one day before the deadline, although we had submitted it over two weeks in advance (it should have been online maximum two-three days after submission!). As a result we had much less time to mobilise people to vote. Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn. Anyway, we think that Level up! Technologies was a beautiful idea and we plan to continue with it.

Doing both a PhD and trying to be an entrepreneur is definitely not easy, but it is incredibly exciting. It is about dreaming bigger. I would love to set up my own spin-off company so that the science I do would be solving real life problems. And I definitely do not feel less of a scientist because of it. I would like to encourage every PhD student to pursue their dreams, believe in their projects, and most importantly – believe in themselves. Intellectual work is a good practice for the mind, belief – for the soul. Michael Douglas in the movie The Perfect Murder said that ‘too much education can pollute your soul’. So make sure you work equally on both. Good luck!

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