Gazing at the night sky can be an inspirational experience. For some, there is more to this than just naming and tracking the celestial objects in the sky. Some of the most interesting and bizarre objects in space are invisible to the naked eye (even to the naked eye aided with the most powerful telescope). The discovery in the 1960’s of the existence of Neutron stars and Black Holes (not visible to the eye) were not only important discoveries in and of themselves but they allowed for some of the most powerful confirmation of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity by allowing the actual measurement of things like the bending of light by gravity among other bizarre predictions from the theory.
What has this got to do with my startup?
The stories that are told about these discoveries take on an almost mythical narrative. Think Einstein in his patent office in Berne, independently and brilliantly coming up with his radical new ideas about physics by himself in a sudden flash of insight (not entirely true). The key here is that these ideas would remain obscure theoretical conjectures without the hard work and ingenuity of the experimental scientists that built the instruments and conducted the experiments that not only confirmed the validity of Einstein’s work but have even allowed them to be applied in ways that make our modern technologies work (GPS would not function properly without accounting for the dilation of time due to the stronger gravitational field at the earth’s surface relative to the global positioning satellites, as predicted by the General Theory of Relativity. If this was not compensated for in your GPS, you would be off course by 10 meters in 1 minute).
Why the ‘Odd Couple’ has a better chance of launching your next product
So as we can see from this example, the successful transformation of a great idea into a practical and valuable product (your GPS) requires the expertise of complimentary but different professionals. Theorists and Experimentalists are as different from one another as scientific founders are from their business counterparts. However, it takes the ingenuity, passion and drive of each to make the alchemy work of transmuting a great discovery and idea from the lab bench into a successful product on store shelves (or e-commerce sites).
Getting theory and practice together
It is the rare individual that has all of the qualities that are essential to making a technology based startup a success by themselves (I would posit that this person really does not exist). It may seem very early to think about the commercial side of your business when you are still working on its technical feasibility. However, if your vision and dream is to someday create a company to commercialize your discovery, you need to find your business or technical counterpart as soon as possible.
Most Life Science companies are founded by scientists with exciting discoveries from their lab. These companies often languish for lack of adequate capital to take them to the next step. A quick look at the companies that are successful in getting the money they need to make this work reveals that, more often than not, they have a strong ‘Odd Couple’ founding team. Speak with any investor and they will tell you up front that they would much rather invest in an ‘A-Team’ with a ‘B-idea’ than the other way around. What is an A-Team? This is a powerful team composed of both technical and business excellence. This type of founding team insures that the science is backed by a compelling business model (and plan). Potential investors find these companies especially attractive since the science and business hypothesis are equally strong. This also insures that the requisite expertise is in place to actually achieve the milestones that have been presented (thereby de-risking the investment some).
Take Home Points:
- Look for your counterpart on Day 1: The day you decide that you would like to start a company to commercialize some great new technology, start looking for your business or technical counterpart. They should share your passion, be innovative and also compliment your own talents. For example, if you are an introvert, consider finding an extrovert. If you are a visionary thinker, team up with a detail oriented achiever.
- Remember it’s the A-Team that gets the cash: A well balanced technical and business team with great connections has the best chance of beating the odds in the rat-race to win the funding you need to get things off the ground.
- Keep your eye on the prize: The many challenges that startups face along with the issues that can arise when working with team members that differ from you can seem overwhelming. Remembering that everyone on the team (make sure that they do) wants this to be a huge success can help you make the compromises, delegate authority and responsibility and cultivate the flexibility that are essential elements of a powerful A-Team member.
- Before the Beginning: Our Universe and Others by Martin Rees | Written by a contemporary of Stephen Hawking that gives a particularly lucid discussion regarding the interaction of theorists and experimentalists as they make some of the most important discoveries in cosmology and astrophysics.
- Time Dilation in GPS | Technical monograph that explains how gravity causes time to run slower at the earth’s surface relative to the global positioning satellites.
- Black Holes & Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy By Kip S. Thorne | Excellent discussion of the practical predictions that come out of some of the most esoteric theories in physics including the dilation of time by gravity.
- The Startup Owner’s Manual: The Step-by-Step Guide for Building a Great Company by Steve Blank and Bob Dorf | This book should be on every entrepreneur’s bookshelf!