The Keck Graduate Institute Industry Speaker Series helps students explore career options in the life sciences industry by engaging the expertise of professionals from their expansive network. In this blog, Genomenon founder and chief science officer Dr. Mark Kiel summarizes the important lessons he has learned throughout his inspiring transition from academia to entrepreneurship.
Recently I was asked to participate in the Keck Graduate Institute Industry Speaker Series, telling what I think of as the story of a recovering academic. Preparing for that talk gave me the opportunity to step back and think about the lessons I’ve learned as founder and chief scientific officer of a genomic data company. Specifically, there are seven key lessons I’ve learned as a startup founder that I hope will be helpful to other academic scientists who dream of solving problems they see in their research:
1. Problem, not product.
You can be successful in starting a company if you focus on creating and realizing value. Focusing on the product is what rookie entrepreneurs do. Focusing on the problem you’re solving and allowing the products to flow from that is what more mature founders do. Expert founders and serially successful entrepreneurs then begin to focus on the process of company building.
2. Build the bike ramp.
In the early days of Genomenon, we had an ideal product in mind, something I thought of as the rocket ship. I thought everyone would want it. But when we first took it out to the world, potential users were more interested in something we never intended to commercialize — something more like a bike ramp than a rocket ship. Gather feedback from prospective customers as early as you can and build the product they really want, not the one you think they need.
3. Painkiller or vitamin?
When you’re thinking about a product, ask yourself, is this a painkiller or a vitamin? In other words, is it necessary or a nice-to-have? Addressing someone’s pain or their problem is the best way to make sure you can scale successfully. It’s not enough for people to be enthusiastic about your product; they have to be willing to pay for it too.
4. Nobody cares about your tech.
This was one of the hardest lessons for me, since I have such a passion for what we’ve built at Genomenon. But customers don’t care about fancy AI algorithms or even about beautiful user interfaces. They care about what your solutions can do for them. Focus on the customers, their problems, and how you’re solving their problems. Skip the deep dive into how the technology works.
5. Find people you trust, and trust them.
It’s not realistic to think one person can do it all or be good at all of it. From the beginning, my company was built with the help of great co-founders, generous mentors, knowledgeable advisors, and the first employees who took a chance on a startup. I am so grateful to all of the people who helped guide me and the company. As you find your own team, I recommend asking open-ended questions to learn as much as you can rather than just the things you think you need to know. Investors in particular look for an eagerness to learn, something they call “coachability.”
6. Don’t hesitate to ask for more.
I made this mistake once (and only once): asking for less money from investors thinking it would make them more likely to say yes. I learned that investors would rather give you the money you need to be successful, so be candid from the start.
7. If you always succeed, you’re not pushing hard enough.
There have been times at Genomenon where we got more ambitious, and I’m not ashamed to say we didn’t always hit our goal. That’s OK. There’s a balance you want to strike between plausibility and ambition. If you’re winning all the time, it means you haven’t pushed yourself and your company enough to realize your true potential.
If you found these tips helpful, please share them with anyone else who might benefit from reviewing them. And if you have questions, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask me.
Watch the full Keck Graduate Institute Industry Speaker Series presentation, A Start-Up Story: My Life as a Recovering Academic, to hear about how I made the transition from a life of academic research to entrepreneurship.