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From student to startup: 3 things I learned

From student to startup: 3 things I learned

Staff Sheehan is an electrochemist and president of Catalytic Innovations. He received his Ph.D. at Yale University, was named one of the Forbes 30 Under 30 in the energy sector in 2016 and was among the CAS SciFinder Future Leaders in 2015 and Chemical & Engineering News Talented 12 in 2017. Passionate about helping to solve the climate change problem, Staff has been steadily making progress toward climate-friendly devices that will reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Over three years ago, I decided to take a leap of faith into the world of chemistry startup companies. My first idea was to take practical solutions for reducing energy consumption from the research lab into the real world. After taking the plunge, Catalytic Innovations has been generating sales and growing after three years, but it’s not been easy.

It's fair to say that this career decision was not without its share of challenges. It was, and still is, less conventional than traditional academic, consulting or industrial routes for a young Ph.D. graduate. It means going from an environment with a wealth of resources at a university to an incubator with just you, your great idea and an internet connection.

During my Ph.D. at Yale University, I studied artificial photosynthesis, which is the conversion and storage of solar energy using chemical bonds in a carbon-neutral fuel. Intellectual property (IP) in this field centers on the catalysts and systems that can perform the desired reactions. This is an area with tremendous potential for innovation. Making fuel or fine chemicals from air has many important applications in renewable energy and toward solving the global problem of climate change, something I'm very passionate about. This became the focus for my company.

In this blog post, I'll discuss how I overcame the challenges I faced with my startup and outline some tips for young entrepreneurs thinking of doing the same.

Protect your intellectual property

Whatever a company's focus, in a technical industry like chemistry, IP is the most valuable asset. It is crucial that you have a robust way to protect your innovations that is both efficient and cost effective. Access to comprehensive scientific information resources is critical to building defensible patents and an effective IP strategy.

In the early stages of building the portfolio of technology around water oxidation that my company licenses, solutions such as SciFinder and PatentPak helped me determine an effective patent strategy that ensured we had defensible IP. By having access to the same tools that patent lawyers and examiners have to search prior art, we could execute rapid and rigorous structural searches in the global patent literature, allowing us to draft patents that had the highest chance of being granted. This was fundamental to getting a key patent granted at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (while also minimizing legal expenses).

Raise funds with an MVP

Transitioning from a scientist at a research institution to managing a small business comes with plenty of funding issues. Raising money with investors, contract research or grants all have their own nuanced challenges. Becoming an effective fundraiser is critical, even more so than for colleagues in academia, large industry or government. Without money, your small business won't be around for long!

My advice is to think carefully about your minimum viable product (MVP) and start selling it as quickly as possible. Think of something that customers can easily relate to and use. Even if it might not be the best showcase of your technology, if there's demand for it, you can build a business.

A thorough review of the research landscape will help ensure you are considering all relevant applications for your technology, as well as possible competitors. Catalytic Innovations uses water oxidation catalysts, which we intended to use for artificial photosynthesis, as anti-corrosion coatings and for other niche applications.

Expand your professional network

Building a network in your field is useful for business and is crucial to making sure your start-up succeeds. For scientists in the early stages of their careers, I recommend applying for networking opportunities like the CAS SciFinder Future Leaders program and C&EN's Talented Twelve. By participating in these programs, you'll meet a diverse group of scientists to help you gather valuable intel as you embark on a wide range of career paths in academia, industry, government or working in a startup. Joining a professional society, such as the American Chemical Society (ACS), is also a great way to expand your network and enhance your career development.

However, networking for a business isn't as straightforward as meeting new people. When looking for business opportunities, it's easy to fall into situations where your time is not being utilized effectively. When trying to make high-level connections, it is useful to attend events where participants are vetted, as they offer a better chance of yielding a helpful professional connection.

There are plenty of opportunities to apply for programs and accelerators where participants are vetted for entrepreneurs. Groups like Singularity University, Y Combinator, Techstars, MassChallenge, Forbes and many others provide excellent opportunities to extend the reach of your new company and make those all-important contacts. I suggest exploring these options to see what could work best for you.

Supporting young entrepreneurs from academia to industry

For those who choose to transition from student to startup, there is no easy path. However, your persistence and willingness to engage the broader scientific community is critical to your success. No matter which stage you're at, it's been my experience that CAS and the ACS can help. Their solutions were invaluable throughout my academic journey and into my career as an entrepreneur.

Whether you're building your IP portfolio, raising funds for your first MVP or looking for networking opportunities, I recommend contacting them to find out how they can help you reach your objectives.