“The lotus leaf has given us a wonderful example of a self-cleaning system, designed by nature. ”

– Queen's chemist Dr. Guojun Liu on his amphiphobic materials

Me? An entrepreneur? But I’m a grad student!

Anne Vivian-Scott

When our office began creating startup companies 25 years ago, there were no support systems for creating and grooming the entrepreneurs to lead those companies.

So we improvised. Who better to get a university researcher’s discovery on the road to market than the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who worked on those discoveries?

Thanks to the efforts of those young founding CEOs, recruited from their research supervisors’ labs at Queen’s University, many of our startups – Cytochroma Inc., Bellus Health, Datec Coating Corp., to name just a few – are thriving companies today.

Today, of course, is the golden age of entrepreneurship, with a multitude of resources, facilities and programs  available for students looking for non-academic careers. 

But one thing hasn’t changed. Graduate students are still a great resource when it comes to transforming discoveries into products -- they just don’t realize it.

Many students are excited about their work – they’ve solved a cool problem, or found a new way to do something. Unfortunately, they don’t necessarily equate “interesting research results” with “entrepreneurial opportunity,” and the territory on the other side of “eureka” is scarily vague.

Part of our mission is to help those students with what comes next. They’re valuable to our business because the skills and experiences they’ve acquired pursuing their graduate degrees are extremely well suited to the job of growing new companies.

So, based on our experience of working with graduate students, here’s our sampling of the skills and competencies that the graduate school experience can provide:

First, there are the “invisible” attributes that are second nature to many grad students: curiosity, critical thinking, self-motivation, risk-taking and decision-making.

Second, hands-on technical skills. A summer job spent learning to work with highly specialized equipment in a research lab can not only open up entirely new areas of inquiry for a student, it can also be the magic stepping stone from humble graduate student to inventor-entrepreneur.  

Third, the business of science. Working in a principal investigator’s lab is, in effect, running a small business. Depending on the lab, and the lead investigator, students may be charged with responsibilities such as ordering equipment, dealing with suppliers, or representing the researcher’s lab at conference or a trade show. All of these tasks are opportunities for students to hone skills such as attention to detail, effective communication, relationship-building, and problem-solving.

Make no mistake -- these are all highly transferable, valuable skills that make for successful entrepreneurs.

Finally, the environment itself is important. Graduate students are immersed in a milieu rich in possibilities across multiple disciplines. It’s often at the junctions or peripheries of these disciplines where students find their curiosity piqued. And that’s also where many scientific advances happen.

Do grad students make good entrepreneurs? Just ask Paul Webster, founder of PARTEQ spinoff Laser Depth Dynamics, Queens’ University PhD, and this year’s winner of the Martin Walmsley Fellowship for Entrepreneurship. He will share his top five “Lessons learned in Grad School” in our next post. 

Anne Vivian-Scott is President and CEO (Acting) of PARTEQ Innovations.