When scientists become startup founders
Academics are taking their research and ideas forward by setting up ventures, and are using the entrepreneurial experience to become better teachers and researchers
It’s 8am. Dipanjan Gope, a professor of electrical communication engineering is getting ready for his two-hour class on computational electromagnetics at Bengaluru’s Indian Institute of Science (IISc). Once the class gets over, depending on his schedule, he will review student papers or guide those who seek assistance, or will start preparing for his other job. The academician is the chief executive officer of Simyog Technology, a two-year-old startup that enables simulation-based agile processes for hardware manufacturing companies. “It’s quite a juggle," Prof. Gope admits.
Like him, Sebastian C. Peter from the New Chemistry unit at Bengaluru’s Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), too, divides his time between teaching and Breathe Applied Sciences, a venture he co-founded in 2016. The startup, which is incubated at the JNCASR campus, is developing technology to convert carbon dioxide from combustion fuel gas into chemicals like methanol, which are used by companies in chemical, pharmaceutical, plastics and energy sectors. “I never thought I would start a company, even though my father is a businessman," says Prof. Peter.
Unlike in the West, the idea of academicians from deep science field turning into entrepreneurs is relatively new in India, but support from industry and institutions is helping the small pool to expand. Of course, juggling two careers comes with its share of challenges.
A.G. Ramakrishnan, professor (electrical engineering) at IISc, had to take a sabbatical for a year to set up RaGaVeRa Indic Technologies, a startup that offers text-to-speech synthesis for Indian languages.
He now dedicates a day to the startup, while RaGaVeRa’s co-founder Shiva Kumar H. R., a former PhD student who quit his IBM job, looks after the day-to-day operations.
Prof. Ramakrishnan didn’t do much planning before starting RaGaVeRa. “I was always interested in doing something where research can be utilized for the greater good. I want the technology research that we do to actually reach people. So, even in my research, I always worked with real data collected from the field," he says.
Peter, on the other hand, is an entrepreneur by accident. A colleague, who eventually became Breathe Applied Sciences’ co-founder, and a former alumnus , who became the third co-founder, asked him to lead a group of scientists for the $20 million global Carbon XPrize competition that challenges teams—from entrepreneurs to academic institutions—to provide solutions for converting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants into valuable products.
“I thought you only have one life, let’s take the risk," says Peter. JNCASR chipped in by covering the $8,000 registration fee. The team got shortlisted but the competition demanded that they register as an entity. “Now the real problem started. We had to demonstrate what we had proposed. This meant having a lab, manpower, etc, and for that we needed money," he recalls. The expert then got out of his comfort zone and started pitching the idea to various industry stakeholders who would benefit from their technology. “It was difficult getting the funding but I was mentally strong," he says. The team made it to the final round last April, and took home $5 million. The team is currently developing a conversion plant in the US for proof of concept.
A balancing act
Despite a hectic schedule, Gope, Peter and Ramakrishnan have no plans of giving up academia yet. “It’s still difficult keeping one leg in both the worlds. Right now, the startup’s taking more of my time. I feel bad that I am not able to give more time to my students. At some point, I would like to keep it 50-50," says Gope, who took a two-year sabbatical to establish Simyog. “Teaching gives me a lot of pleasure and I feel I am contributing to the society in some way." Having said that, Gope admits that as Simyog grows, his not being able to give full time to the company will become an issue. So he’s looking for a CEO to replace him eventually.
Ramakrishnan, on the other hand, is clear that he doesn’t want to be a full-time businessman. “I enjoy teaching and want to continue doing research that’s relevant for people. However, I am heading it out of necessity. Money is important. You can’t tell someone that you are not keen on making money. You have to talk appropriately. I learnt this from one of my clients," he says.
Peter, meanwhile, is quite enjoying his entrepreneurial stint and the challenges that come with it. For instance, he recalls how a peer complained to XPRIZE that Peter’s team was working on plagiarized data.
“This person later apologized. But it cost us 10 days as the X Prize investigated the matter. It was very stressful. When you grow, you get more enemies than friends," he says.
The other challenge is raising funds. “Institutes can provide only limited financial support; you have to find funding, convince investors. One of the biggest challenges we face is that some investors want us to dedicate time to the venture full time. We lost a few investors because of this," he says, adding that the paucity of funds impacts hiring of talented manpower.
Siddharth Pai, founder and managing partner, Siana Capital, one of the first venture funds to invest in deep science and tech startups, says, “A concern is where the focus is—on their startup or their body of research work. I have seen founders, who had to make a choice and they drew the curtain on their academic careers. Or else, they can decide to hand over the running of the company to someone else. But either way, they have to make a choice."
Pai, however, insists that deep science is a new category where one can expect true innovation. “Most deep science and tech innovations come from academic institutions and these are government funded. You also have the best talent there, so it’s a huge positive. Not only original research but also subject know-how and lot of patents come from these institutions. Also, many of the solutions can be exported. As for business sense or financial know-how, it’s pretty much the same as you would expect from first-time founders. They come with same baggage."
Despite the stress, Peter admits he has enjoyed the last two years operating his startup more than past 12-13 years of his career as a professor, even though it resulted in reduced time for family and football, his favourite sport.
Gope says despite “working on steroids", his understanding of the subject has deepened because of his venture. “It’s given me an understanding of what the industry is doing and what it’s looking for. This definitely helps me become a better professor as I can provide my students insights and answer them better," he says.
Ramakrishnan enjoys the startup world because it gives him enough opportunities to interact with people from different professions, “which I won’t have been able to do as an academician". He believes it’s important to know what’s happening in the outside world because “only then we will be able to connect the research to the outside needs."
He insists there’s a need for a proper system to help academicians set up a business. “It took us a week to figure out how to register a company," he says. “Once you are in IISc or IIT, no one is looking at what you are doing. You may be a great researcher but poor in communication. Institutes should work on their resources and train people. Constant training is required."
FIRST PUBLISHED01.10.2019 | 10:14 PM IST