Scientists move into business and start-ups: will there be little expertise left in science?

Scientists move into business and start-ups: will there be little expertise left in science?

"A scientist must not only come up with an idea, but must find talent and money."

Why did you go from science to business?

My family was really very academic, current and previous generations in science, and I graduated from the physical department of the MGU, and while I was studying, I was working in a very powerful laboratory, and I was lucky to be in a scientific environment where there's already been a transformation of scientific activity from a typical USSR to a modern one where scientists look like entrepreneurs.

It's very similar to how ideas work in business, why didn't you stay in science?

I didn't think there was an alternative -- all the role models for me were from the scientific world, but I started to notice that in some things I wouldn't be a great scientist -- something I didn't need and wanted -- the academic atmosphere is closed -- it's a bubble, people inside might not know what the alternative is. It's clear that you can go into industry, but I had a desire to create something unusual that solves big problems.

Since I was a kid, I've had a cliché from the '90s that business is scary and dangerous, but over the last 10 to 15 years, prejudice has begun to disappear, and the area itself has developed very much. It's clear that this way started a lot earlier in the West. I'm lucky that the organization inside the scientific park of the MYU sent students who are doing applied research on missions. I got into the Silicon Valley, I saw what innovative entrepreneurship is, and after this trip, I opened my eyes.

At the same time, I started my own business -- developing custom software -- it wasn't innovative, it was just a job to earn, but I realized that the skills were -- I could find clients, understand their needs, and create a solution that would help them.

- Why is it important to talk about what science can do for business?

- There are known statistics: 7-8% of the world's population is entrepreneurs, with a certain attitude and character, and this proportion is more or less present in any random sample and even among scientists.

I don't call on scientists to change the field massively, science is very different from applied business, but what's possible is that there's an opening for many, and there's a back door from business to science to do more fundamental things and to dig deeper.

In America, these two worlds are getting a little closer because in science, it's increasingly difficult to get funding, so big scientists and middle-level researchers are starting to realize that you can pull applied engineering pieces away from science and do business for them, and it can even be through funding research.

- It's easier in business?

Science, too, has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, and now any scientist can't expect to fall in funding from the sky, it's only his ability to get grants, which is very similar to how the startup is looking for an investor.

Comparable and competitive: scientists are much more than money — the world's budget for science has been declining over the past 15 to 20 years; the likelihood of a grant being given is less, and science is becoming very competitive.

"Scientists who go to business need to be able to take a lot of risks, not conservative."

Who needs to go into business?

You need to understand why you do this, and you need to compromise with comfort. Rather, it's about character features and less skills. Scientists have a key skill -- a scientific method of learning. A researcher may not even know about it, but he does it every day, always checking hypotheses, thinking in numbers, models, and measurements, conducting experiments, and changing his hypothesis to get new knowledge.

This process is basic and fundamental, but it wasn't, by default, a business as a system approach. This skill is as helpful as possible in situations of high uncertainty -- that is, when the company is starting to work. You don't know what's going to be on the market, can you build a product, attract a team, money, and make all this work? But in these circumstances, you have to move without burning up funding and power, getting new answers. It's very similar to what's happening in science.

And then you need skills for entrepreneurs, and scientists don't mostly have them -- they don't teach it in science schools -- by the way, Western institutions don't, they teach presentation or negotiation, but researchers learn fast -- it's not rocket construction.

In order to move from science to business, there has to be a tendency or a desire to contribute more quickly, because in science, the horizons of influence are very long. When I did my dissertation, I had the feeling that it would be useful if it developed in decades, and I was uncomfortable with that idea, and someone's perfectly normal, because the horizons of fundamental science are decades or more. You also have to be able to take a lot of risks, not be conservative.

Is the fear of scientists who find it difficult to go into business a purely Russian trait, or does it not depend on the country?

In America, starting a new company is also scary, but the infrastructure is a little more prepared for it, and there's a businessman who realizes that he's good at drawing, and he's not very good at running management records or planning finance, but they're definitely there, and they can hire a CEO, learn in courses.

After this transition, the motivation of scientists doesn't change, because in science, the purpose is to develop solutions to problems, and in business, the profit?

I'm a laser physicist, and I'm in the business of automating construction, and sometimes it's a technological enterprise that's connected to what you've been doing in science. For example, my one-year-old is doing a deep technological startup based on her thesis. They're making really complicated campaigns for meteor stations, they're selling small amounts of very unique equipment, and they've certainly changed the range of things they're learning -- marketing, sales, negotiation, but motivation hasn't changed -- it doesn't make a million dollars.

Most companies have a mission -- things with a long horizon, like automating a building -- and to get there, they need work, money, investment, but it's a tool, not a target, and that's what scientists do in business, that's the main purpose of their company, that's the mission, and they've been getting bigger lately.

From what you're saying, it seems that science and business are two very similar ways of realizing themselves.

The answer is different: like any meaningful event in life, it happens because of a number of factors. Some people didn't want to continue their scientific journey because a particular laboratory or area seemed unprospectable. Or they were annoying to bureaucracy -- I've never heard of it, but I can imagine it. In large scientific institutions, it might cost so much effort to order a screw that it's easier to buy.

But there are reverse situations. Scientists are the coolest people, because the goals they set are so ambitious that the implementation horizon is very vague. They're very patient people -- they're so curious that they're ready to go for a long time.

- Don't you think science will lose too many important people?

Talented scientists, stars I've been able to communicate with or work with -- people so focused that they won't get away with it -- I had doubts about whether I could become a science star, and those who have no doubt, they can't be persuaded or lured.

"The road to businesses that choose innovative solutions is risky"

- Are companies becoming more scientific?

- Yeah, it's a bit of an innovative word here, but it reflects the essence. So, when a business is in trouble, it can solve it in a traditional or innovative way. It's a business development -- it can hire more people and invest in the same thing or invest in innovation -- hiring experts, creating scientific laboratories to solve the problem in a completely different technological way.

For example, in the pharmacological industry, there's a problem with antibiotics, it's been a giant leap for humanity, survival's up, but then there's a lot of antibiotics, and they're being used in a chaotic way, and they're used to it and they're not responding anymore, and now you can continue to do the same thing or invent something new, and that's research, schools, and clinical trials.

The road to businesses that choose innovative solutions because it's risky, you can invest in nothing, but if you do, the result can yield enormous potential.

- Do you see a tendency for big companies to introduce innovation, hire scientists?

Many corporations actually hire their own expertise, create whole labs, and here, without negative colouring, the freedom of science is lost. At a university of science or at an institute, you're completely open to all the answers -- you're only asking the question, "What if?"

In commercial companies, innovation is aimed at producing a concrete result, rather than an open end study, and commercial companies are also increasingly introducing a precautionary enterprise approach when you try to test basic hypotheses in the cheapest way possible and set up the following.

If you move in small steps -- testing, hypotheses, measuring, changing the hypothesis and beyond -- you don't die, and that's not just a scientific approach -- scientists do the same.