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Entrepreneurship in focus at Photonics West student events

By Dirk Fabian

The words "entrepreneur" and "entrepreneurship" usually bring to mind Silicon Valley-type people like Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google or serial start-up leaders like Milton Chang, founder of New Focus. This is understandable. The media tends to focus on this image of the young risk-taking entrepreneur since it makes a compelling story.

The reality of entrepreneurship is actually much more complex. In truth, it is a very rare new graduate who sees him or herself in the roll of the public business entrepreneur. This usually comes later in one's career, often after working at a larger company for a few years. The Kauffman Foundation reports that most entrepreneurial activity takes place between ages of 55 and 64, and the 20- to 34-year-old age bracket has the lowest activity. Technology companies do a little better than this, with the average age for start-up founders coming in at about 42 years old.

Entrepreneurship is often described as a virus that infects people. The desire to do things "your way" burns hot and cannot be ignored. Once you have been a successful entrepreneur, it is much harder to go back to a standard job working for someone else. Many entrepreneurs I have talked to often refer to situations that "forced" them into creating their own company. Frustration with authority, different product goals, and just plain old financial independence are usually the core issues. However, even if you are not working feverishly to finish your PhD so you can found your first company, it is worthwhile to know what that process looks like and how you can set yourself up for future success.

Entrepreneurship, quite simply, is the art and science of assuming the risks and rewards for a new business venture. This definition implies the existence of two facets of entrepreneurship - the personal and the public - that are hidden by the raw demographics. Public entrepreneurship is easily visible - the public company or business, the small engineering firm, the consultant. Personal entrepreneurship, on the other hand, is a more complex concept and relates to the idea of treating yourself as a business venture; one that would like to exchange knowledge and work for money in order to sustain its existence.

Again, despite the demographics, there are many reasons to pursue entrepreneurship early-on in your career. As a young person, you have the energy for the tremendous amount of work that a start-up requires, the free-time to put in to it, and if it fails, you also still have a large section of your career left to reboot and try again. For younger scientists, entrepreneurship is not even necessarily all about starting a company. Licensing of properly protected intellectual property also is a very common entrepreneurial pathway. If a technique or apparatus is designed in the lab and has a market, companies may be interested in licensing and producing it. More and more universities are organizing their Offices of Technology Transfer so that potentially profitable research can move out of the lab and into the marketplace more quickly. Attracting corporate interest and investment is an entrepreneurial venture. This is an especially useful strategy for new postdocs to pursue, since attracting and receiving outside financing for research is often the best ticket to future career advancement.

After investing a large amount of time on a technical education and becoming invested in an academic system, how can students quickly come up to speed in the world of business and plot an entrepreneurial career course? The professional development program at Photonics West is designed to address both these facets of entrepreneurship and provide inspiration for people interested in striking out on their own. For people unsure of their career direction, but open to the idea of working for a company, Dr. David Giltner will address the question "Can a scientist find a rewarding career in industry?" Giltner has recently completed a wide-ranging series of interviews with business leaders about the positive qualities scientists can bring to the business world. For those interested in what it takes to strike out on their own and start their own venture, Andrew Hargadon, Professor of Technology Management and chair of the Entrepreneurship program at UC-Davis  will discuss how innovation happens.  We will follow that with a panel discussion from people in various phases of the technology cycle - University R&D, new company founder, serial founder, and technology Venture Capital advisor.

Perhaps the best advice for professionals with uncertain future plans is to lay the foundation for future success by building a network that can help you make business-related decisions.  The final part of the session will feature a practical networking session so that participants can practice their networking and elevator pitch skills.

Following on the elevator pitch workshop, the Biophotonics Start-up Challenge is a new event for SPIE. The idea is to provide a venue for students, post docs and other early career researchers to present ideas that they think could be commercialized as business ventures. These short elevator pitches will be judged by a panel of experts who will provide feedback and scoring. SPIE has received generous sponsorship from Newport to send the top 3 start-up challenge presenters to the Biomedical Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy at UC-Davis this summer. Organized by Prof. Hargadon, the Academy brings grad students, postdocs, and faculty together with business leaders, financial analysts, intellectual property experts, and venture capitalists so that attendees can get feedback and plan out their startup. "The network is the innovation" is Prof. Hargadon's message, and this event should help students get on the proper path to building their first technology business venture.

Resources:

Reprint of articles by Milton Chang on entrepreneurship from Laser Focus World

"Entrepreneurship, age, and money" from www.businesspundit.com

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