A Foot in Both Worlds

Written by François Baneyx / December 20, 2021

Academic researchers and entrepreneurs might not be so different

Dear friends of CoMotion,

I came to the U.S. from France in 1986 to begin my Ph.D. studies at the University of Texas at Austin. That same year, IBM introduced the first laptop computer, the FDA approved the first monoclonal antibody treatment, and the Soviet Union launched the first module of the Mir space station. Three and a half decades later, there is more computing power in many smart watches than that first laptop, antibody treatments have helped save millions of lives, and private companies are launching space tourists into orbit.

Innovation, at its core, is a creative pursuit with practical impact; it has potential for changing the world, and it often does. Through my own research at the confluence of molecular engineering, materials science, and biotechnology, I have gained a first-hand understanding of opportunities and challenges in areas that have potential for driving disruptive changes in our economy. I also recognize that, for these changes to have impact, they must efficiently move from the lab and into society. For academic innovators, this can be a daunting step.

UW is a research powerhouse. Our faculty won $1.63 billion in federal awards during the 2020 fiscal year alone. Together with graduate students, postdoctoral associates, and research staff, they have used these grants to explore uncharted frontiers, create new knowledge, and convert discoveries into innovations that serve the greater good. Archetypal academic researchers are passionate about their work. They thrive on seeing a hypothesis verified, a prediction realized, or a model validated. And to lab denizens, nothing is more exciting than the discovery of a new phenomenon, whether serendipitously or after years of grind. The payoff comes under the form of influential research papers, peer recognition and admiration, research funding, and the potential for broad societal impact.

Often, this very last step remains unrealized. Yet, efforts to understand the etiology of diseases yield new therapeutic targets, fundamental discoveries in chemistry inspire new approaches to energy harvesting, progress in physics and engineering leads to novel paths for processing information and matter, and a deeper understanding of our history, evolution, and psychology enables technologies that improve our lives and the health of the planet.

At first blush, the roles of academic researcher and entrepreneur may seem quite different. I believe there are more similarities than differences. One could even argue that being an academic researcher is excellent preparation for becoming a startup CEO or CTO. Take organizational leadership and team building as an example. This is the bread and butter of any research lab, and it is especially critical to sustain the interdisciplinary (and often multi-institutional) research efforts that are commonplace today. Concerned about fundraising? A track record of writing creative, well-referenced, and well-articulated proposals to federal agencies that only fund a small fraction of applicants has the run-of-the-mill academic covered. What’s more, learning to deal with the rejection of said proposals (and of the occasional paper) is excellent preparation for VCs feeling that “there isn’t a good fit between your startup and our investment priorities.” And let’s not forget the uncanny ability of researchers to harness their deep knowledge and domain expertise to successfully respond to the next grand challenge set forth by funding agencies. That’s readiness to pivot from day one.

Granted, there are differences, too. The financial risk is higher, the pace can be much faster, and talking to customers and understanding commercial markets, regulatory hurdles, and IP strategies are just a few of the challenges an entrepreneur needs to overcome. This is where CoMotion comes in. Our passion is to assist UW researchers on their journey to spinoff, license, or taking a product directly to users. We know there is no single path to take ideas, inventions, or discoveries to market, and we acknowledge that each researcher has unique personal goals. The CoMotion team helps bring ideas to market as efficiently as possible—to deliver meaningful change, improve lives, and powerfully compete in global markets. Mark Twain once said, “the secret to getting ahead is getting started.” If you’re a UW researcher pondering a spinoff, CoMotion can help you get started, and get ahead.

Be well,

François Baneyx
UW Vice Provost for Innovation and Director of CoMotion