From PhD to Business Start-Up

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If you are considering business start-up as a career option this article shares with you insights about an entrepreneurial career route and tips to help you take those first steps to make your ideas a reality.

Preparation for an entrepreneurial career

There has been much written about the fact that research by its nature requires creativity, persistence and problem-solving ability. These are some of the very skills which will provide you with an excellent preparation for setting up a business or working in an environment requiring an entrepreneurial mindset.  In today’s economic climate there is the need to innovate and develop jobs through business start-up, and you could be well placed to get involved.

To help you prepare for an entrepreneurial career find out what is on offer at your University or through the Research Councils and professional bodies you are associated with. Look out for enterprise and knowledge transfer schemes and initiatives to support the commercialisation of research. Business Plan competitions can be an ideal way to explore your suitability to an entrepreneurial career, providing valuable support both in terms of advice, expertise and financial investment for competition winners.

Why choose business start-up?

Take some time to reflect on your preferred way of working, for example if you value independence, autonomy and creativity then you are more likely to be suited to an entrepreneurial career option. It is also important to consider factors such as your attitude to risk and the self-belief business start-up requires. Think also about your commitment and the extent to which you are prepared to put in the hours this type of work life often necessitates.

You may have all the strengths, skills and motivation required to pursue an entrepreneurial career, but this alone is not enough. Whilst we are not here to give you professional business start-up advice, it’s important to highlight that you will need to have a robust business idea and a well-researched understanding of the market place. Seek out the entrepreneurship and innovation experts at your University and network more broadly with entrepreneurs and business owners. This will enable you to access relevant the relevant advice, networking and collaboration opportunities and support you need.

Do further research by accessing information on the web about business start-up.

If you are interested to read more about the motivations of doctoral entrepreneurs go to the Vitae website and download the publication “What do researchers do? Career profiles of doctoral entrepreneurs”. Vitae is the national organisation championing the personal, professional and career development of postgraduate researchers and research staff in higher education institutions and research institutes.

How and when to start up

One of the key themes from the Vitae report is that there are many roads to self-employment. At one end of the spectrum is a business with considerable start-up investment and ambitious growth plans. Success often comes from pursuing entrepreneurial aspirations with university support, for example by combining running a spin-out with an academic career. At the other end of the spectrum you may simply choose to work on a self-employed basis as a sole trader, or combine entrepreneurial activity with employment. See the article on Portfolio Careers.

As well as considering how to set up, you need to think about when to start up. In the Vitae publication many of the researchers had extensive CVs and considerable work experience before establishing their business.  

Dr. Sam Decombel has kindly shared her business start-up story, which followed completion of her PhD in Plant Genetics and a period gaining experience in technology transfer:

“I realised I didn't want to stay in academia but equally I wanted to find a role where I could use the skills and experience I had gained during my PhD. After investigating several options I came across technology transfer, which would allow me to continue working within an academic environment but with a more commercial outlook, helping researchers to take their technology to market where it could be of benefit to the public and society at large. My knowledge of the scientific background to the technology and the way academia functions in general was just as important as the new commercial skills I developed taking on this role, and I experienced a great deal of job satisfaction from knowing I was helping get important new technology to market.” 

Following a successful 3 years working as a Technology Transfer Manager Sam is now using these same skills developed during her PhD and with subsequent commercial training she has started her own company called PlayDNA, which will provide personalised genetic portraits of an individual's DNA with analysis for entertainment purposes.

Through developing a portfolio of technology transfer-based consultancy work Sam has been able to fund the business start-up project.  

"I didn't originally set out with the intention of setting up my own business, I just focused on what aspects of my PhD I enjoyed and worked towards those areas, identifying a role that suited my strengths. Basing my career decisions on what I enjoy doing has meant I remain highly motivated and have great job satisfaction despite the occasional high levels of stress!”

If you have found this article useful and would like to learn more about specific points raised do let us know and we can expand in future articles.

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