subtitle entrepreneurial outlook: Helping postdocs harness their deep-tech expertise

Recently, the Postdoc Association at EPFL invited me to run a unique hands-on program for postdocs on how to discover and evaluate potential applications of research projects. The goal was to help them harness their deep-tech expertise and develop a strategy to realize its full potential.

Discovering the commercial possibilities of the advanced technologies developed in the lab allows postdocs not only to engage in more meaningful research projects, but also to consider entrepreneurship as an alternative career path.

The latter is in fact an important mission, not only because it drives innovation to the market, but also because studies show that less than 15% of postdocs will eventually find employment as tenure-track faculty.

This sense of importance is what drives me to share my experience here: how did I structure the program, what were the key lessons learned, and how did it change the entrepreneurial intentions of the participants.

The hands-on program

In 6 online sessions, postdocs learned and applied the Market Opportunity Navigator, to systematically address 3 key questions: (1) how to identify different applications and target customers stemming from their core abilities; (2) how to evaluate different market opportunities to reveal the most attractive option; and (3) how to create a strategic plan that focuses on the most promising path but keeps them open minded and agile.

Before the program began, each postdoc presented briefly their research project, and we teamed them into pairs. This way, they could apply the framework together and provide feedback to one another during the sessions.

A strong emphasis was given to sharing their work and brainstorming with other postdocs from completely different fields- to broaden the scope of opportunity discovery.

The full 17-hour program can be found here.

Key lessons learned

I always finish my trainings with a clean whiteboard, asking participants to write down one key lesson that they have learned from this program. The insights were great, and show the gradual shift from an academic mindset to an entrepreneurial outlook. Especially interesting are those related to validating market need, and to the power of a structured process:

What about entrepreneurial intentions?

While this was not the main purpose of this program, it was non-the-less interesting to find out how postdocs changed their initial entrepreneurial intentions.

10 out of 14 participants considered entrepreneurship as a possible career path prior to the course. Out of these, 5 mentioned an increase in entrepreneurial intentions following the program, 4 felt that it did not change, and 1 person reported a decrease – which is also a positive outcome (better learn this now before you start the race!).

4 postdocs that took part in the program did not consider founding a startup prior to the course. 50% of them reported at the end an increase in their entrepreneurial intentions. Overall, given the importance of providing postdocs with tools for an alternative career path- these insights are highly satisfying.

What participants say

Finally, we gathered feedback and suggestions from the certified postdocs. We asked them what they liked most about the program, what they learned and what can be improved. It was amazing to see the impact that 6 online sessions can have on these bright people. For me, this is the fuel that keeps me running 😊

Here are few highlights from this survey:

“I loved the workshop, it was very practical. Perfect combination of theory and exercises in groups. Small groups of two people with different backgrounds were an extremely good idea.”

“I was totally unfamiliar with how to move from idea to market. Now, I have lots of insights about it”

“This course is an absolute gem for those who want to explore market opportunities for any kind of commercial idea. It provides step-by-step instructions, and the Navigator is a very powerful tool that helps to evaluate and also prioritize market opportunities”

“The Market Opportunity Navigator is indeed a comprehensive yet reiterative and systematic tool for researchers to handle the dilemma about the value of their innovation and its commercialization plan.”