Entrepreneurship is not for wimps — the hours are long, pay is often irregular, vacations are short or nonexistent, and stress levels are high. Dedication to your “great idea” may be to the detriment of your relationships and, ultimately, that idea could turn out to be a dud. On the other hand, you get to be your own boss, pursue your vision, and apply your skills and expertise to build something you and others value. Your success is tied directly to your efforts.
Trading in the corporate life
Kurt Schneider is one chemical engineer who left the corporate world and never looked back. “Working a nine-to-five job for the first 20-plus years of my career, I found that the rewards didn’t fit the effort,” he says. Schneider started his consulting practice, Tech Bridge West, in 2005 and has worked with clients from all over the world. “There have been struggles, but there have also been great years. The variety of projects is something I never would have seen in corporate America,” he says.
While consulting is one area in which engineers can practice entrepreneurship, Keerthan Vantakala took a different approach. Vantakala, like Schneider, did not feel fulfilled in his corporate role. He wanted to create and grow something organically. He founded 6C Solutions and is using his skills and expertise to develop an artificial intelligence solution to improve chemical facility productivity and profitability. For Vantakala, the risk of starting his own software company was worth taking: “Twenty years from now, I’d be more disappointed by the things I didn’t do than by the things I did do.”
Roger Pelham knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur not long into his time at a refinery, but he didn’t have a specific technology concept in mind to start a company. He took a year to research small companies, eventually joining a startup that sold automated systems to oil refineries. Even though he wasn’t the founder, he was able to take advantage of many opportunities to expand the market, improve technology, develop new services, and help the company to grow.
It takes more than a good idea
A good idea isn’t enough to start a viable company. Judith Sheft, Associate Vice President, Technology and Enterprise Development, for the New Jersey Innovation Institute advises, “Entrepreneurs need to be willing to deal with uncertainty, work hard, and persevere. More importantly, they have to be coachable and willing to accept input from multiple sources. When I talk to angel investors and venture capitalists, this characteristic is often more important than the technology concept itself.”
If you’ve been bitten by the entrepreneurship bug and are willing to accept the risk, follow this advice:
Get involved in the local ecosystem. Sheft recommends attending meetups and local association meetings to get connected with other entrepreneurs, potential investors, and additional resources. Sheft herself often attends these events. “From a university tech-transfer standpoint, we’re interested in finding potential opportunities for collaboration to license some of the technology that is coming out of the university.”
Describe what you do succinctly. As an entrepreneur, you will have many opportunities to talk about your concept. The easier you make it for your audience to understand the problem you aim to solve, the more likely you will connect with funders and other resources that can help your company.
Assemble a team with the right skills. Starting a company or commercializing a technology requires a broad skillset. “Not everyone on your team should have the same skills as you. You need to get the right mix of capabilities, especially as your company grows,” says Sheft. For example, if you are a technology ace but the sales and marketing aspects of commercialization bore you, you will need to bring in individuals with the appropriate business skills.
Consider joining a small company. Like Pelham, you can apply your entrepreneurial spirit and expertise to help a fledgling company. This approach allows you to flex your entrepreneurial muscles and take on varied responsibilities without accepting as much risk. As the company grows, so does the potential to advance your career.
Investigate incubators. Business incubators provide workspaces, seed funding, mentoring, training, and other benefits to support entrepreneurs. Many focus on specific industries or technologies. For instance, the Rutgers Food Innovation Center is an incubator that focuses on commercializing food innovations. Incubators typically have competitive application processes, but if you are serious about building your business, the time you invest may be worth it. Investors often give more consideration to incubator companies because they have already been vetted.
Explore funding sources. It can be difficult to fund the development of your idea out of your own pocket. Government programs like the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs can help you to fund commercialization efforts. Many organizations can help you connect with funding sources. In New Jersey, for example, the NJ Tech Council and BioNJ hold events to help entrepreneurs learn more about available funding.
Leverage your AIChE membership. AIChE offers resources for entrepreneurs, including industry technology groups such as the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneuring Excellence (CIEE), to foster collaboration. Tap into these resources to help make the right connections and launch your entrepreneurial career.
This article originally appeared in the Career Corner column in the October 2018 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at aiche.org/cep.
AIChE's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneuring Excellence (CIEE) is organizing the Chemical Ventures Conference 2019 in Wilmington, Delaware on April 23-24, 2019. See more information about the conference.