At the Global Young Scientists Summit (GYSS) held earlier this year in Singapore, a constant theme that ran throughout the conference was entrepreneurship. While many of the invited speakers were researchers and not entrepreneurs themselves, the Singapore National Research Foundation—which organized the event—actively promoted the idea of creation and start-ups.
In a panel discussion entitled “The Entrepreneur in the Scientist,” Nobel laureate Kurt Wuthrich said, “It used to be that as an academic you are not supposed to dabble in business. But, now in universities, if you have never been involved in some sort of a start-up venture, you’re seen as somewhat suspicious in terms of how good you are. That’s how much things have changed.”
Many of the speakers shared their stories about why they started their own businesses. Michael Gratzel, the 2010 winner of the Millennium Technology Prize, Finland’s highest award for technological development, said he believed research should be curiosity-driven, not money-driven. He started his own company because the university could not do more with his innovation beyond the patent stage.
Another panel discussion included Nobel laureates Richard Roberts, Harald zur Hausen, and Wuthrich and was moderated by Arnoud de Meyer, president of the Singapore Management University, a school focused on business education. “Driving Growth Through Science and Innovation,” was based on business school case studies and lessons learned.
Roberts shared with the audience how he came to establish New England BioLabs, a company that produces and supplies enzymes for life sciences research. He said that many people told him his business model would never work. Yet it did, and continues to do so. The profits from his company are invested back in research and are also distributed among all employees. He and his employees are also their own customers, so it is in their own interest to continually improve their products. Roberts admitted that he deliberately hired predominantly science and technology-trained staff and not those with MBAs because he felt it was more important to have employees who understand the science.
The 2013 IEEE Medal of Honor winner, Irwin Jacobs, told the audience about his “glitches” when starting two companies. One time, when Jacobs was about to demonstrate how CDMA (code division multiple access) mobile telephony works with the help of staff who were supposed to call in from a van, he was given a signal to keep talking to buy his staff more time to troubleshoot problems with the call. That he did—for a whole 45 minutes! He attributed his university lecturing experience for saving him. Jacobs also shared that when still at the helm of Linkabit, a technology incubation company he founded that helped launch Qualcomm and a number of other large tech companies, he sent several employees to get professional development training at local universities. Some of them learned about emerging software used to design computer chips that didn’t previously exist—a decision that paid off later when they later on needed to design their own chips for specific applications.
One audience member asked the panelists, “How do you ensure that as the company grows, you don’t become content as spreadsheet-pushers instead of doing what you do best, which is innovating?” Jacobs replied, “I told my employees to think of our company as a start-up…Just a start-up with a very good cash flow so we can afford to take bigger risks.”
It just so happened that EmTech Singapore, a conference organized by MIT Technology Review, was also taking place around the same time as GYSS. The two organized a panel discussion that included Ryan Chin, the research scientist of the City Science Initiative at MIT Media Lab. He gave an impressive overview of smart city technology solutions, including foldable electric vehicles and multi-function interior household design concepts. Some of these ideas will turn into start-ups in the next few years, and are opportunities for recent grads to break into an emerging field. Among the guest speakers were owners of start-ups who have developed a variety of products and services, including one panelist who designed novelty visualization techniques for users to produce data infographics.
Listening in throughout the conference, it was interesting to note that these speakers who tend to focus on the science behind their work shifted their focus toward business, which is a reminder to me that being successful in technology actually requires two distinctly different skillsets. These speakers were savvy enough to be equipped with both. For others who aspire to follow in their footsteps, this is a lesson to keep in mind and work on (before quitting your day job, withdrawing all your savings, and calling yourself CEO of the next big tech start-up).
Helene Fung is the senior strategy and business development manager with IEEE’s Global Business Development. She is based in IEEE’s Singapore office.