Turning Your Research into Your Business

Have you turned your PhD topic or experiences into a small business? How did you do it? I was an entrepreneur before it was cool. Before being an innovator or being agile was a thing.

I was an entrepreneur when it was called owning your own business. Being self-employed. For some, there’s an attraction to the idea of turning some or all of your PhD into your job. And that was what I did. Here, I talk about the steps that I think are necessary to go from PhD to business.


Good day there, bakers, writers, and rock stars. Today, I’m talking all about turning your research, your PhD project, your findings into a business. So, l’ve been doing this for ages. So, 2008 was when I first started doing this and so I’ve got a bit of experience in running my own business. Running my own practice as well as helping others turn their ideas into a business that they might use. So, today we’ll go through a few different things from product to protection. Through to how to package your work and knowing the purchaser.

So, firstly the product or the entrepreneurial idea. Deciding on what your widget is. You’ll obviously, to be an entrepreneur, to have a business, you’ll need an idea something that you can grow into an entity that result in a good outcome. So, that could be money to live on. Impacting the world like reducing famine or protecting the environment. Whatever it might be. You’ll need to know what it is that you want to build your business idea on or around. If your research resulting in a finding or creation of a tool that might be the basis of your idea. For example, it could be a reagent or a validated survey instrument or even a particular cohort that you might suddenly have access to regardless of what it is. For the remainder of the article, what we’ll talk about in terms of your business idea is we’ll call it a widget whether it’s an idea or a real thing. So, that’s the product.

The next is protection. Should you use protection or not? So, firstly this isn’t legal of advice, and I’m not a lawyer. But some things that I’ve seen along the way. So one, the need for legal protection will vary. So, if the widget is already in the public domain, it might not be possible to protect it. Or if it is possible, it might be pointless because other people can already get access to it and do what they want with it reverse engineer it if they need to. If it’s not in the public domain then you pretend you have the opportunity to protect it, but there are some things to consider. So, for example official protection you know say to the patent office, we’ll need you to disclose information about your widget. So, if you have a validated survey that you want to protect from as copyright, you might need to list all of the questions in your valid survey including their order and how they’re asked. That might not be what you want to do because now others could get access to your patent and build exactly what you already have, and then you’ll have to prosecute them and to prevent them from using it. If you don’t have the funding to do that then it all just is a massive waste of time. But of course, if you want to sell your idea then some buyers, some philanthropists, IPO, etc., they might be interested in the protection. So, there’s some things that you might be interested. You might need to protect for those reasons leaving it unprotected in commerce. But say again if we talk about a validated survey instrument, but then releasing it to the market will require if someone’s to use it. Reverse engineering it. So, they’ll need to pay to get access to it then they’ll need to build it backwards in order to replicate what you’re doing. Of course, um I’m not sure that you could stop someone from doing that again. They could pretend to be someone that they aren’t and get access to your survey and away they go. But there are some natural protections that occur by certain things being in the public domain. So, anything you write that is original, automatically is copyright protected. So, all you need to do is prove that you wrote it first, and then other protections can also accrue through long-term non-disclosure. So, this is called a trade secret. So, as best I’m aware things like the recipe for Coca-Cola. The recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken. They’re not protected by patents. They are now considered trade secrets. So non-disclosure might be really useful including not having a patent. So, it’ll depend on many factors as to whether you protect or not, but knowing your preferences, the preferences of co-inventors, the preferences of future buyers can help you determine whether you need to have protection or not. You’ll need to strike a balance I think, between protecting the intellectual property, between the preferences of your investors, and your co-inventors. As well as being able to move quickly because all of this will take time. So, other factors that could be impacted by your desire to protect your product. It could be cost of production, sorry cost of protection. Cost of not protecting it could be legally or illegally replicated. How could you enforce your protection rights? So that’s another thing I mentioned earlier, and then if protection is overall a value to your widget.

The next thing is packaging your widget. So, you’ve got a great widget. You’ve protected it now. It’s how do you package it. The better question to ask is how do clients want to buy it? So, more often than not we set ourselves up based on how we want to sell our widget. Not on how our clients want to buy it. As a result, we have widgets that looks awesome to sell but no one buys, and I’ve been in that category as well. So, in order to know how to package your widget, you might want to know how your clients buy. This means you need to do some market research. So, the first phase might be some kind of lit review. Whether that would be looking at websites and social media and see how others are talking about similar products. See how other buyers are selling their products. See how other buyers are purchasing, and how they’re engaging with sellers. Phase 2 is to do some real-world interviews. So, try and find potential or actual clients, and discuss the idea with them and see what they think. Then finally compile everything into a report that reminds you of why you made the decisions that you did. So, that you’ve got a reference for the future, and then obviously act on the information. So, that’s about packaging.

The next is understanding the purchaser. So, kind of done some of that in terms of the packaging part, but who’s going to buy it and who’s going to use it. So, sometimes those two things can be different. That’s definitely the case in some of the work that I do. For example, graduate research schools are the ones that might buy my time, but the PhD students at the graduate research schools support they’re the consumers of my content. So, just be mindful that there could be different purchases. There could be someone who makes the decision, someone who makes the purchase, and someone who makes the use. So, if we go use the graduate school example, the decision maker might be the dean or the vice chancellor of the graduate school; the purchaser might be the project manager or the project officer within the graduate school; and the user might be the PhD student. So, all of these steps understanding, the purchaser, understanding how you’re packaging your stuff whether you use protection, and what your product is can all be iterative. So, if you do some work and you find out you haven’t quite got your product right, then you might need to change either who your market is or what your product is. If you decide not to protect and then you realize that your market that your investors want a protected product, then you might go back and protect. So, it’s constantly going around in a circle, and particularly when you think about making modifications to your product, then you need to reconsider all of these things again.

So, there you go, some steps on how you might turn your PhD project into your business.

Take care. Bye.