Close Encounter of the Hard Science Startup Kind

For the past 2 months, I mentored a group of over 40 scientists and entrepreneurs in the water technology industry (wth? you may ask) and put them through an entrepreneurial fast track program (condensed version of the Founder Institute program) with the purpose of potentially spinning out high growth water startup companies. The results were rather amazing. Not in terms of which teams were selected to pitch at Hydro Pitch Day on June 2nd, 2014 as part of the Singapore International Water Week, but in terms of how they have grown and how they have bonded and helped each other out in a short but definitely interesting 8 weeks.

I took up the challenge because it is precisely what I am uncomfortable with; dealing with PhDs and patents. Only in uncomfortable situations where you learn the most and ask the most interesting hard questions. Hard science and entrepreneurship, marrying them together is a pretty challenging task no matter who you are. Research institutes around the world are battling the "Return of Investment" question surrounding R&D budgets allocated over and over again, universities tries very hard to emulate MIT and Stanford and work on spinning out companies as part of their technology transfer KPIs. Singapore is no stranger to this.

Here are my summary of findings and take aways after working with the teams for 2 months. I hope my "outsider" perspective can shed some light.

Finding 1 - Technology chasing a market. Academic researchers tend to surround themselves with seemingly "great" intellectual property looking for a market to sell to or apply. A primary reason is because they do not have a well rounded complementary team who are able to hustle and research their way through the maze of customer development and very few are from industry. Most technology transfer offices are also weak at that because of the wide range of technologies they have to deal with, it is hard to be strong in a vertical when you are spread too thin.

Finding 2 - Seemingly "great" technology in the eyes of the inventor are technologies that are not validated yet by anyone that matter. Very few have begun trials with a prospective customer. They seldom have the time or know how to step back and reconsider whether what they have invented is indeed revolutionary or simply just incremental. The technology's strength and differentiation compared with other university technologies, startups who have been funded or in stealth mode or large company research labs has never been truly tested or benchmarked against. 

Finding 3 - Most teams are weak in understanding who their actual customer and the form of their product. Without this clear understanding, it is difficult for many of them to clearly articulate the true market size and opportunity. However, it is due to the early stages of commercialization that they are in this predicament, this is also the precise stage to have people from various disciplines to be involved and infiltrate new ideas and ideas combinations to spark innovative "What if" questions.

Finding 4. Without special interventions from mentors, investors and "an ecosystem", hard science spin outs will take time and will continue to face challenges.

So what can we do to change this situation in addition to running entrepreneurial programs like the Lean Launch Pad, here are my preliminary thoughts (perpetually in beta) ;)

1. Research institutes and universities should carefully curate a panel of advisors that consists of;

a. World class (no geographical restrictions) hard science venture investors who invests in seed stage (writes the first check) who has seen, invested and worked with various technologies and scientists/entrepreneurs at a global level over a few cycles and/or decades;

b. Operational executives from potential customer segments who has experience procuring technologies and finally; 

c. Founders operating in the same vertical who are not jaded (and hence become naturally pessimistic) by the industry, or the entrepreneurial process. Find recent entrepreneurs who are excited and upbeat about what they are doing to change the world.

Have them meet twice a year to look through potential research and patents. Each technology vertical should form one panel.

2. Research institutes and universities need to foster a culture of clashes of students, faculty from different disciplines, and the entrepreneurial community. 

a. Run meet ups (in the central part of town please) where entrepreneurs and scientists gather, but not pitching the final business case rather to explain what the core technology does. Seasoned entrepreneurs who dare to ask the right "What if" questions will challenge all forms of thinking and seed new ideas. Let the question-storming start and foster among the community and do not constrain the process. Have someone facilitate the process who really knows how to foster creative questioning.

Finally, it has been a pleasure working with all of you at the Hydropreneur Program. I gained many new friends but importantly a new found respect for all of you. Your work, passion, expertise and sheer genius sometimes blows my mind. I enjoyed our crazy discussions and banter over the weeks. There are a bunch of you I would love to work with in the future and perhaps fund your new ventures if the investment criteria fits my fund. Till then, stay crazy, optimistic and keep asking crazy "Why & What if" questions.

Catch you all soon and keep in touch.

p.s. Good luck to the 6 finalists at Hydro Pitch Day! I will be cheering for you, and this time with no expletives. I hope.