Science skills translate to business sense

By Syed Ather

BOSTON — Business strategies might seem like the least of a scientist's concerns, and learning how to market a product may, to some, seem like an unnecessary or objectionable pursuit. But embracing entrepreneurship can help researchers and physicians enhance and multiply the impact of their work, a noted physician-entrepreneur says.

Skills that are second nature to scientists — formulating and testing hypotheses, developing and evaluating new methods and analyzing results — can be directly translated into business success, said ear, nose and throat surgeon Dr. Arlen Meyers, president and CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs, during a Feb. 16 workshop at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting.

In particular, strategies such as redefining methods and looking at problems in different ways are common to both science and business. Startup companies in particular make good use of this approach.

"A startup is a scientific experiment," Meyers said. "It's the scientific method applied to the business world."

Meyers now spends much of his time teaching physicians, scientists, and STEM students from the undergraduate to graduate level about how to think like entrepreneurs. His workshops and courses use methods from a National Science Foundation technology commercialization learning model called I-Corps.

At a recent workshop, participants drew business models on canvas and tackled hip surgery complications. They envisioned solutions ranging from Fitbit-style apps to artificial intelligence-guided virtual medical assistants, and thought about how to commercialize them.

Incorporating technology in such systematic, business-minded ways could help hospitals improve clinical procedures, said anesthesiologist and self-proclaimed serial inventor Dr. Bob Hirsh of Cooper Medical Center, who has developed non-invasive surgical methods that reduce trauma and risk for patients.

The entrepreneurial mindset includes questioning and seeing both the journey and the destination — which means having insight into how people will value products, the scientist-entrepreneurs said. Entrepreneurs need to demonstrate that their ideas will work, even with incomplete information from time-limited exercises, they said.

One approach could involve looking at how the most prolific scientists work, and translating their successes into tools that can help others, said Keith Wing, a business consultant who specializes in biotechnology and agrochemistry.

Many situations will arise in which the expected result does not materialize, and that calls for learning and adapting, such as with high-risk clinical trials or when regulatory hurdles force a change in direction. As such, the path to scientific and business success is generally non-linear.

But with Talent, Opportunity, Luck and Determination, or TOLD, as Meyers calls it, scientists can succeed both at the bench and in business.

"The biggest factor is luck," he said.

Syed Hussain Ather is a senior at Indiana University-Bloomington, where he majors in Physics and Philosophy. He has served as a reporter, columnist and Editor for the Indiana Daily Student. Follow him on Twitter @SHussainAther.