Interview: How To Become a Science Consultant
My name is Kathy Muirhead. I am one of a two person company called SciGroS. It has nothing to do with fertilizer. The idea is actually around science and growth. Science based growth. What we do is we work with little companies. Anything from the gleam in the inventors eye to maybe early stage proof of principal in people that are developing new bio medical products. It could be the next great drug, it could be a new medical test that would help you decide which medicine will be better for you individually as opposed to someone else. It could be medical devices, like something that helps fractures heal faster or an external device that could be used instead of medicines to treat depression.
So people have these ideas and they come to you?
Well, they have the ideas. Sometimes they come to us, other times people tell them they should come to us. Because your first step in what you think is a good idea, is to try and figure out a) what would it take to test it and b) where am I going to get the money. Because for the kinds of companies we work with, usually there’s some kind of laboratory testing that’s involved. We’re both scientists by training. What we help companies do is figure out what’s the science, what you’d call ‘basic science’ at the university, the purposed of which is to create new knowledge that maybe someday will turn into a product. But at least right now it’s just curiosity. Why do things work that way?
Eventually something will come along and you’ll find a way to make a person better. You could give them a new medicine, a new treatment, a new test.
So is it kind of like consulting where you fill in the gaps for science?
It is a kind of consulting. It’s definitely consulting. We’re heads for rent. We’ve both lived in academic medical centers in the past. I worked in a big drug company. We both worked in a small startup that thought we were going to be able to use cells to deliver new therapies. Didn’t work the way we thought, but boy did we learn a lot about what you have to do to make a product besides the science. That’s really what we try to help the companies we work with find out.
That’s the motivation for starting what you’re doing.
The motivation for doing what we do now is we wish we could have had someone that would have told us all the things we learned the hard way. Or at least warned us that we needed to watch out for some of those things.
How’s the transition been going from having a paycheck to being an entrepreneur?
Actually, that wasn’t the scary part. But then, we were lucky. We both happen to have husbands who are employed at the time. Mine’s retired now, but ten years ago it was okay to try this for a year and see if it worked. Either there was a niche or there wasn’t a business. So we made our laundry list of stuff people said we were good at doing or that we liked to do, and that we’d be willing to do. We talked to our various friends we’d worked with in our prior lives and asked if they’d be interested in someone that did this. Some of them said we didn’t need to do this, but that they’d kill to have someone do this for them. Because they didn’t have the time or expertise or whatever.
So eventually, ten years later, we’re pretty convinced there’s a niche.
What has been the scariest part?
The scariest part, frankly for me as a scientist, is having to stand up and sell your product. Which is why should you want us to come up and help you think about and plan this development in science.
How do you overcome that then?
Well, I guess the answer is that first, you tell them you don’t want their job. Because I don’t. I like my job. My job is to help them figure out the right things to do to figure out if the idea will work before you waste more time and money than it’s worth. Because it’s too easy to do all the things that you know will probably going to work about the idea. And then all of a sudden, all that money you raised the really hard way by getting to the venture capitalists or the angels or however you want to raise money to do the testing, it’s gone. You still don’t really know whether the critical things are going to work or they’re not going to work. That’s the problem in the company I was part of. We didn’t test the hard things first.
When we finally did get around to testing them and found out it didn’t work, we just said that the product wasn’t going to work the way we thought it was going to work, and we focused our efforts on something else. But we waited too long to find that out.
So what I think I like about the job is sometimes I can help other people avoid having to learn it the hard way. So first I say, ‘I don’t want your job. You’re the experts. You know your idea. You know the possibilities.’ Our job is to ask the hard questions. ‘How do you know it will do what you think it’s going to do? Have you ever actually done an experiment in the lab that says it will do that?’
Do you think people are afraid of addressing those hard questions? Why don’t people address them?
Most people, some people are afraid of them. Some people frankly take them as an article of faith. When you’re in a little company, you wouldn’t be there unless you really believed it was possible. And you just put everything you have into making it happen.
You know things are going to go wrong. You’re going to find things you don’t expect. Certain things you just believe because it’s an article of faith. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be in that position of being the entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs have to believe when no body else does. Because they haven’t shown it yet. So you have to believe it.
Sometimes that means you say, ‘Well of course I believe that.’ But you have to really test it. It’s because you believe. So it helps to have someone outside the situation who can step back and say, ‘We know you believe you can do that. But all those venture capitalists are really hard nosed. Or the government who will read your small business grant application and decide to give you money to go do this stuff in the lab.’ They might actually want to see some evidence that it could work. That’s where we have our fun. We get to help plan and think about the science.
I’ll tell you truthfully, being in a small company and having to do it all, every day by yourself, you’re too young to understand this, but it’s a whole lot more like being a grandparent than a parent. Okay. I have lots of nieces and nephews an no kids. It’s like being an aunt or an uncle instead of a parent. You get 80% of the fun and only 20% of the hard work (laughs).
That support network of having that consultant there, where does that rank on the list of being successful for entrepreneurs or a successful company?
Let me say a successful entrepreneur. Because usually in the beginning, the entrepreneur is the company. They’re the spark plug that gets everything started. I think at least based on the entrepreneurs that we’ve worked with, the ones that are going to succeed are the ones who have the faith, can get other people excited about it, but know enough to know that they don’t know it all, and have around them people who will help try to make sure that the right questions get asked. Sometimes they have to get asked financially. Other people do that. I don’t have to. But you need good financial advisors. You need good scientific advisors. They need good business advisors who are going to say, ‘Yes. I suppose your idea can do this. Who are the people that are going to use it? How are you going to turn it from an idea that can only be done by an expert in a well equipped laboratory to something in shrink wrap that you can sell at a clinic site that doesn’t have any specialized equipment?’ That’s the difference between the idea and the product.
There’s a lot of things that have to be done scientifically to get it from here to there.
What would you tell someone who is stuck to be in a corporate job that aspires to be an entrepreneur who is thinking about making the leap of faith, but hasn’t quite made it and is on the teetering edge of that decision?
I’d say you have to know your own comfort level. You will learn things being an entrepreneur in a little company that you would absolutely never learn in a big corporation. Big corporations put you in your little box and say you’re a specialist in this, you do that.
The good news is if you go to a little company and you become an entrepreneur, you will get to do things that you never ever thought of doing before, and probably never knew you could do before. The good news is that you get a lot of things to try. The bad news is if you screw up, it could screw up the company. You get a lot more responsibility, but you have to take a lot more responsibility.
You have to decide how you feel about that. If the idea of being able to take the responsibility and make it happen, even if you have to do stuff that takes you outside of your comfort zone, is exciting, then do it. If that scares the dickens out of you, don’t do it. Consult with a little company, become one of their experts, or become their internal advocate at the big company that says, ‘These guys are doing something really exciting. We ought to be watching them.’ But do go be in the company.
It’s all a matter of matching the things you like to do to the things that need to be done.
Sometimes you just have to try it. But, I think the hard thing about saying you’ll try being an entrepreneur, there’s a real difference between the first company and the one I’m in now. The first company I was in, to get that product to market it was going to take millions of dollars and a lot of time. There had to be a lot of people involved. So once you started down that path, you felt a lot of responsibility to those other people. It really was a very family oriented feeling of setting.
You worked hard, but not because you wanted to see the idea succeed, but because you knew that if you didn’t do your job, it was going to impact a lot of other people. It’s not that I don’t feel that way about the current company, but it’s just the two of us. We can decide whatever we want to do. If one of us needs to stop and take care of a health emergency for a parent, the other one can cover. It’s not so easy to do that when you’re in a different kind of company. Again, it’s matching the needs to the likes.
I love my job. I really do. Anything where I can learn something new every day, work with really bright people doing really challenging stuff that’s going to help people’s health and welfare, and get paid for it? Man, I’d do any job that involves doing that (laughs).