PhD to Start up?



After completing my PhD last year I was set on putting all the recommendations I had made into place. I wanted this research to make a real difference. And out into the world I went. I co-founded a business during my PhD that I started to grow, and was also working in local government in a sustainability role. My co-founder and I received scholarships to a start-up incubator program called Curtin Ignition towards the end of our PhDs. This was the first experience I had in the start-up community, and I saw so many connections to how we conduct academic research.

What I did discover is making your thesis recommendations happen is not that easy. And I would like to share some insights on how to make research even more effective, and help improve employability for Masters and PhD students after completion. One of the major issues universities face is that industry is moving much much faster than the traditional pace of research. We now live in a connected, digitally disrupted world. Innovation can easily take us over while we’re buried in a literature review.

I have outlined some key areas for thinking like a start-up in your research below.

“Don’t be passionate about your idea, be passionate about the problem you are trying to solve”

(Dr Marcus Tan, Director of start-up Health Engine)

Make sure you are passionate about solving the problem and not attached to the solution you think will work. Being open minded and coachable are pre-requisites of start-up programs such as Founders Institute. You need to be able to take criticism on board and pivot your idea. As an example, You Tube started as a video online dating site but after this failed to take off pivoted to just sharing videos online. It has since been acquired by Google for a mere $1.65 Billion.

After spending months of research coming up a solution taking criticism is difficult. I remember feeling like people couldn’t possibly understand my PhD area like I did, so how could they offer an opinion? The worst thinking possible! Finding those criticisms early, listening to the feedback and applying them to your idea can only lead to a stronger solution.

Who are your ‘users’? Where are you adding value?

Typically a literature review takes into account thousands of online journals and publications. This is an amazing breadth and depth of knowledge. But the ‘just published’ article you view on that library website is at least 12 months old.

Do you really really know the market where your research fits? What problems is that market experiencing now? Where do the problems stem from? Market research is a crucial ingredient to any start-up. It is important to understand all stakeholders, their interests, and how they currently deal with the problem you are trying to solve.

Try a start-up weekend to dive head-first into market research.

Learn, Build, Validate, Review…and again, and again, and again

Many start-ups have failed because of not validating their ideas. A start-up can’t survive if it builds a product without first ensuring people will buy it.  A colleague told me about a website he spent 12 months building with a solution he though customers wanted. It turns out they didn’t actually want what he thought they did and he lost quite a lot of money and time. He now mentors new start-ups on research and early validation of ideas.

By the time you have completed your thesis and are submitting all your recommendations you have been down a long road. Did you check in along the way that your solution is what the users need and will use? Did you change and adapt based on feedback? Create a constant internal review process to keep your research on track.

Know the financials

Accounting has never been a strength (or love) of mine. But it is important to know if the recommendations you make stack up financially. Are your ideas actually feasible? I don’t mean this in the way that academics shouldn’t be visionary, we need to provide high level thinking! But making recommendations that are completely disconnected from what is realistically possible doesn’t prepare you for implementing that research into real markets. I learnt this the hard way making policy recommendations, and then discovering the millions in financial resources required to implement. Even if it is outside your comfort zone, get to know the financials well and you will be in a much stronger place.

Think in start-up mode 

Work on your elevator pitch (try to explain your idea in 30 secs as though you are speaking to a child)

Take a look at the lean start-up canvas  and apply this to your research design. What is your problem? Your solution (hypothesis)? What makes this unique? What market are you targeting? Who are the competitors?

Head along to a local start-up weekend or accelerator program, like Curtin Ignition  or join a co-working space like SpaceCubed to get into start-up mode.

A desk is a dangerous play from which to view the world (John le Carre). Plus,too much sitting knocks down your productivity. So leverage networks, engage as much as possible with stakeholders and find mentors that can give you constructive criticism along the way.

We could all do with applying a little start-up thinking in our lives.