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The Science of Start-Ups

The Science of Start-Ups

A revamped "From Idea to IPO" program provides a crash course in entrepreneurship for the scientifically savvy.

When Ching Yao Yang, a PhD candidate working in materials chemistry at New York University, received an email from his lab advisor detailing problems with lab management, he had a great idea for a new company: "I wanted to create an environment for people to use technology in the lab, not only researchers, but primary investigators and vendors." But with no formal business training, he was not sure where to start.

Enter "From Idea to IPO," a course offered by the New York Academy of Sciences through the Academy's Science Alliance, which provides career education, development, and training for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Science professionals enrolled in the 12-week course gain the tools necessary to understand, grow, and sustain a start-up business—moving ideas from the lab to the business world—and bring it to life in the ever changing marketplace of New York City.

Since Science Alliance introduced the "From Idea to IPO" course in 2004, it has been one of its most popular and longest running programs; approximately 500 young scientists in the NYC metropolitan area have taken the course thus far.

A fresh perspective

Earlier this year, Science Alliance Director Monica Kerr took over the direction and teaching of "From Idea to IPO," using the opportunity to breathe new life into the program.

"My goal was to freshen up an ongoing, popular program that was running nearly unchanged since its launch in 2004 and also address some challenges I had observed," says Kerr.

Kerr, who earned her PhD in cell and developmental biology from the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program at Harvard Medical School, realized that in a world of constantly evolving technology and business models, the course had, in recent years, lost some of its luster and that beneath its dulled surface lay the perfect marriage of science and business.

"As I was restructuring the curriculum, I aimed to not only teach the nuts and bolts of starting a new venture, but to also cultivate entrepreneurial skills, offer exposure to the start-up community in NYC, and increase awareness of various career paths supporting the commercialization of science," says Kerr, who took a systematic approach to revamping the course curriculum through use of existing successful models.

"I accomplished this by incorporating more active learning approaches, which have been shown to be highly effective in increasing student learning, and recruiting 15 guest contributors from the local entrepreneurial ecosystem," says Kerr. These changes were directly influenced by a similar course taught at Stanford University School of Engineering by Consulting Professor Tom Kosnik, who was instrumental in sharing course lecture notes and materials, says Kerr. Andrew Nelson, co-author of Technology Ventures: From Idea to Enterprise, also assisted in thinking about syllabus design and how to utilize and incorporate the textbook.

Kerr has divided the course into two modules: "Opportunity Recognition and Evaluation," which covers innovations in technology, the creation of business models, and entrepreneurial marketing, and "Pursuit of Opportunity," which covers the more concrete components of business, including patent protection, finance, accounting basics, and start-up and venture capital. Students put this knowledge to use by undertaking course-long team projects where they work through the process of starting a mock company using a science-based business idea they decide upon as a team. Each team is assigned a local mentor who works in the entrepreneurship field, who they can go to for support and advice.

It takes a village

Guest speakers for the course include entrepreneurs as well as members of the technology transfer, legal, accounting, and finance communities. Many of these guest speakers also come back to serve as judges for the final day of the course, when students "pitch" their mock companies to a panel of experts and get personalized feedback on everything from their business idea to their presentation style.

New York City Entrepreneur-in-Residence Melinda Thomas, who serves as both a guest speaker and a judge for the course, has noticed a positive change in the course over the past year. "I was very impressed by the change in terms of it being more engaging. Monica is using the case method to teach points. Students work through a real company that has a real issue and they become more engaged in having to think it through."

Thomas—who has been the business brains behind several successful medical and science start-ups and is now a leader in the NYC start-up community—believes that the team building component of the course is very beneficial in crafting profitable science-based business ideas.

"Once you have an idea and start your company, you won't have all the skills needed to create the product. You're going to have to work in a team and learn how to ask the right questions." While scientists are used to working together to solve problems, points out Thomas, working through problems in a business capacity can take some practice.

From mock project to marketplace

One illustration of exemplary teamwork that came out of the most recent "From Idea to IPO" course is Team Benchsoft. Comprised of scientists from a variety of disciplines, three members of Team Benchsoft—including Ching Yao Yang, who came up with the idea for a better lab management system—have forged ahead with their mock class project, taking it to the marketplace.

With their only formal business training coming in the form of Kerr's instruction in "From Idea to IPO," Yang, Jasmin Hume, and Raul Catena have made the commitment to start a real company. Since taking the course, they have written a business plan, created an advisory board, and incorporated the company. They are currently shopping the company around to angel investors.

"We are moving really quickly," says Hume. "During the course, we were learning and implementing simultaneously." Hume, a PhD candidate who works in the lab with Yang, feels that the material they learned in the course was directly—and immediately—applicable to the process of creating a start-up company.

"Learning about the sequence of events has been really helpful. It's important to know where to focus at each point in the process, whether it's on building a prototype or looking for money" says Catena.

Yang cites the expert guest speakers and the team's mentor as a big part of their early success. "Our mentor has the same background as us (a PhD) so he was able to give us constructive criticism on both the technical and business aspects of our idea."

Success story

When asked about the ideal outcomes of the course, Kerr cites a variety of potential results—from students obtaining positions in technology transfer, patent law, venture capital, or at a start-up to students gaining new skills that are helpful for advancement regardless of career path. However, it's clear that she is particularly proud of Team Benchsoft and Yang, Hume, and Catena's transition to real-life entrepreneurs.

"It has been very inspiring to instill in students very practical information and skills that they can begin to implement immediately. Hearing them report that they feel equipped with the tools to start a new venture, and then to see one team actually in the process of pursing this with their team project, is very validating."

Christina Duffy is a freelance writer in New York City.

For information on upcoming Science Alliance courses, visit