The scientist as an entrepreneur

In this post, I’ll suggest that as science leaders, we should view ourselves as business owners. Weird? Yuck? Read on…

For many of us, the decision for science was, at the same time, a decision against going into the business world.

And yet, we experience all the time that many business aspects leak into our science world. Getting funding has long become a big competition, and so we try to market our ideas in our grants Salaries include variable, success-oriented components. Our quality as researchers is largely evaluated by quantitative measures like the number of publications we have authored. Funding agencies want us to include real life applications and science-to-business transfer in our grants. I’m sure you can name more.

Enter the entrepreneur…

Many of these business aspects have a negative connotation for us. But I will make the point that there is a connection between science and business that we should embrace: as lab leaders, we are entrepreneurs, and we can deduct lots of ideas from this comparison for our lab management.

What’s an entrepreneur? According to Investopedia, it’s someone “who, rather than working as an employee, runs a small business and assumes all the risk and reward of a given business venture, idea, or good or service offered for sale. The entrepreneur is commonly seen as a business leader and innovator of new ideas and business processes.” These are people who have a vision and a purpose, and who go to great lengths to make a dream reality.

I know it sounds a bit flowery. But still, many of us scientists aren’t any different. We lead our group in trying to gain rewards through more or less risky scientific work. More than anything, we are innovators of new ideas.

…and so what?

Why do I think that the analogy of a science group leader as an entrepreneur is important?

It’s because we face a lot of the same challenges. In his book The E-Myth (also see my post on this book), where E stands for Entrepreneur, Michael Gerber explains how most entrepreneurs start out as “technicians” – experts with some specific know-how (= end of PhD, beginning of PostDoc). At some point, the technician decides he wants to be his own boss and starts his own company (= first grant, first professorship).

Now the technician must become an entrepreneur. He must stop doing technical work, and begin to develop his company, to lead. Gerber calls it working on the business rather than in the business. As scientists, we usually no longer “do the science ourselves”, but lead others in doing it. Our task is now to develop ideas about where we should search next, and to acquire the necessary funding for our research to expand and our group to grow.

Once you see how similar the challenges of a small business owner are to the challenges you face as the leader of a science group, the next logical step is to find out how small business owners attack their everyday hassles. And internet and libraries are full of advice for entrepreneurs! I’ve found many interesting and worthwhile strategies and tactics that can be transferred to the science world.

Not everything. Not always one to one. But many things, and often with surprisingly little adjustment. We’ll look at some of them in posts to come.

Do you see commonalities between business owners and yourself? What are your reservations about the analogy? Leave a comment below!


I’ve posted about Michael Gerber’s book, “The E-Myth Revisited”. You can check it out here.

Michael Gerber gives a quick intro about his ideas in a ~20 min podcast (www/iTunes).


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].

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