Lessons Learned: Scientific Thinking to Entrepreneurial Spirit

Jing Deng is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Skirball Institute and the AIDS Research Center at NYU Langone Medical Center. Inspired by her aunt, who is a successful entrepreneur in China, Jing merges her love of science and entrepreneurship, and develops a strong desire to help scientists streamline the research process, to eventually accelerate the pace of scientific discovery.

Steve Blank’s 5-Day Lean Launchpad Course helped me define the difference between scientific thinking and entrepreneurial spirit.

During the course, my partner Fang-Ke Huang and I spent quality time with Steve Blank and the teaching team going through the customer discovery process to redefine and validate our hypotheses. I learned how to talk to my target customers to identify their “real pain” which helps us get accurate insights into our business model. As a scientist, I learned so much about transforming scientific thinking into entrepreneurship, and Steve Blank left me feeling inspired and encouraged after the 5 Day Lean LaunchPad Course.

Knowing the Differences between Scientists and Entrepreneurs & Bridging the Gap

During the process of this class, our team has done 53 customer interviews with people from different fields, including scientists and businessman, which make me gradually realize that there are the big differences between scientists and entrepreneurs:

In academia, scientists make our reputations based on what we know. We don’t “profit” from this knowledge until we publish it and can explain how to reproduce our work to others. Only then is our professional reputation enhanced and our research validated. Scientists are generally motivated by publication success, research grants, and tenure offers. But scientists typically don't need to see a meaningful financial reward for the work unless it is commercialized. And yet still many of us don't pursue this path.

Scientists and Entrepreneurs have different motivations, incentives and expectations. Adapted from Copyright 2011 Illinois Partners Executive Services, LLC.

Scientists and entrepreneurs have very different incentives and perspectives. Entrepreneurs don’t profit from their work until they create something, which often has commercial value with privileged information. The best entrepreneurs may not be concerned with getting credit for their ideas, but they and their investors require the financial payoff. On the other hand, they are either born or learn to deeply understand the needs of customers, partners and even competitors.

Entrepreneurs often take advantage of their ability to connect the dots when many of those dots do not yet exist, such as coming up with applications and markets for new and untested technologies. This ability is clearly much more art than science, and I think requires a mind and personality that may be more Picasso than Albert Einstein, as Steve mentioned many times in our course: “Entrepreneurs are artists.”

Entrepreneurs are typically not willing to take risk for risk's sake either, but they'll take it if it's necessary to start or further their business. To become a good entrepreneur, scientists need to enhance their ability to “connect the dots” by learning from entrepreneurs how to handle substantial uncertainty and risks.

Use "Human Being Language" First

During the first day of the course, we introduced our idea to Steve and the teaching team. They quickly pointed out a problem in our presentation: “What's the problem you're trying to solve?”

After getting advice, we found out that we really needed to work hard on making our idea easy to understand for potential customers, partners, future employees and investors. I realized that making a complicated idea sounds simple and compelling is an art.  This skill also becomes very helpful and useful during customer interviews. Even now, I keep this lesson in my mind whenever I try to explain any idea to others.

Your Gut has More Information Than You Do

On the 4th day of the course, my team had a very special interview with an executive director. Although the interview went smoothly, she seemed confused about our ideas. Immediately, I changed the tone and started to discuss deeper questions. The director started to realize her needs and sincerely told us a lot about the company's current concerns and pains by showing us detailed information and helping us set up a meeting with her boss.

When we reported our story to Steve, he said “Very Good! Have you found that you two have very complementary personalities?” He pointed at me and with a big laugh said, “Jing you are as crazy as me. You have entrepreneurial DNA in your body. You move fast and make decision quickly.” Then he turned to my partner and said, “You are just like my co-founder and you should try to catch up with Jing’s speed. When you ask questions, first think about whether or not it's relevant, especially when you need to make quick but important decisions."

Steve explained that it's important to trust your gut sometimes.  After a certain point, waiting to get all the information before making a decision isn't feasible. Waiting too long will make your decision late and meaningless. Gut instincts are informed in ways we don’t even understand. They are built on years of experience, and subconscious observations about human nature. I have learned this many times in the past, especially when it came to decisions about people — who to trust, who to talk with, and who to keep on board.

Now, my gut is telling me to continue with our Lean LaunchPad startup, CookScience — and we will.