Research Tips & Stories for Everyone
As the startup that I co-founded, SanaHeal, Inc., was incorporated at the end of October 2021, it recently hit its first 6-months of the journey. I left MIT to work full-time in the startup from April 2022, it’s almost 3rd month in my full-time startup journey. It has been a busy 6 months with a long list of items that have been check-marked as groundworks for starting any self-standing and functioning company. Yes, it’s still really early days – but it has been a strikingly enjoyable and refreshing experience for me, so I think it’s worth writing down my first impressions.
Answering the same question – Why not become a professor?
In the first few months after deciding to transit on the startup journey, I got the same questions from my colleagues and friends – why not become a professor at university? It was a bit silly question, but an understandable one as my career seemed geared toward an academic career to be a faculty in research-focused universities. Frankly, I don’t think that I have an answer since I am not sure whether the startup journey is a brief digression from my academic career or something permanent departure from academia for now. But I had a few questions that I asked myself to decide to go for the startup journey instead of finding a faculty job for now.
My answers were all pointing to the startup journey rather than a faculty job in academic institutions at least for the time I considered. Who knows it may change later but it really was at that time. We have seen lots of things during the COVID pandemic, and it did affect a lot. We have seen the gap between industry and academia broaden ever larger than before in many regards (especially financial and work-life balance metrics). We have seen a rapidly deteriorating academic publication system overall (poor quality control, hyper-competition, inflation of papers, etc). We have seen a big shift in PhD workforces toward industry. We have seen outright and shameless sabotage against fair evaluation and meritocracy in academic hirings. It has been a hard time for everyone.
Fundraising – Pitch, pitch, and pitch
Fundraising in pre-seed and seed rounds was so much fun but an entirely new type of activity that I had never experienced. Basically, it was a series of pitches to many potential investors with a rate to have the follow-up meeting less than 30 %. Unlike almost an hour-long seminar presentation, a startup investment pitch was typically at most 30 min based on presentations with around 15 slides. We had a very experienced CEO to lead the fundraising, but I felt pretty stressed initially as most of the shots were missing or going nowhere. Also, the short pitch format made me anxious as I was so familiar with lengthy academic presentations and discussions with endless and super crowded slides full of scientific and technical details. Whenever I gave a pitch with our CEO, I felt half-finished (5 years of research projects in 15 slides!). It took a long time and many tries to get used to this new type of communication.
Eventually, after 6 months of countless pitches, some hit well and now we completed our pre-seed and seed fundraising. It was a pretty interesting experience for me. It’s like meeting a person for a date and developing a relationship. Discussing lots of detailed points during the due diligence process with the investors developed some personal fondness for each other, culminating in the signing term sheet. It was a completely different yet likable experience compared to the anonymous, document-based, extremely slow-paced, and mostly single-sided communication and decision process in academic grants.
Industry experts – Lovable tribe of PhDs
When I worked mainly on academic projects, it was rare to meet and discuss industry experts deeply. In the startup journey, my world is flipped – I have to meet and discuss mostly with experts in the industry, many of them with PhDs. I worried a bit about this transition, but it was a really pointless concern. I rapidly developed a deep love for industry experts and PhDs in the industry. They are professional in what they are working on. They are well-compensated to their work with a solid work-life balance. Communications are straightforward and do not require reading between the lines. Alas, it felt like finding an oasis as these qualities were often missing and the lack of such qualities was a major driving factor that made me frustrated and tired in academia. Maybe there would be another set of problems in the industry, but at least industry experts and PhDs in industry were lovable folks and it was encouraging for me.
As I was deeply in academia and still so in some sense, I can blow some whistles loud. We often face unprofessional attitudes, mostly due to distorted personalities by hyper-competition in an academic environment. We know most academic folks, especially in their early career, are horribly under-compensated for their works (while eye-popping amount of F&A cost to beef up administrative bureaucracy). We often face awkward communications that require careful reading between the lines to uncover underlying politics and hidden conflicts of interests.
Grants and R&D – Gray areas between industry and academia
Interestingly, unlike big corporations, the startup journey has gray area with academia - R&D and federal grants. While it may depend on different fields, early-stage R&D of a new concept in BME/biotech is quite similar to that of academic projects. In some sense, they are almost identical up to proof-of-concept pre-clinical studies. Furthermore, there are lots of federal/state grant opportunities available for startups that work almost the same as grants in academic institutions (except no need to assign crazy high F&A costs!). Also, tech startups in BME/biotech areas are keen to publish papers to increase the credibility of their technologies and scientific findings. So, good or bad, the early days of the startup journey require me to do pretty the same activities that I did in the academic world – chasing & writing federal grants, developing ideas and performing R&D to materialize the idea into workable prototypes and validations, and paper publications.
Overall, the first 6-months have been an exciting journey out of familiar academia. I don’t know whether this uplifting experience would continue in the next 6 months, but I am hopeful.
Disclaimer. The contents are my personal opinion and do not represent the view of any institution or company I am affiliated/employed. If you find any incorrect information, please feel free to let me know via my email.