Two weeks before embarking on a life-altering overseas move from Canada to the UK, most people would probably spend their time packing, selling possessions, taking care of finances, finishing up work commitments, and saying good-bye to friends. But if you’re a die-hard neuroscience enthusiast like I am, then you would do the aforementioned things while also participating in an intense 12-day long Summer Institute about the business side of neurotechnology.
1. Business, Neuroscience, Law, and Everything In Between
The Summer Institute on Neurotechnology, Innovation, and Commercialization (NICE), was held for the first time ever at Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada) from August 12 to 24, 2012. Organized by Dr. Aaron Newman, along with other faculty members of Dalhousie’s RADIANT (Rehabilitative and Diagnostic Innovation in Applied NeuroTechnology) program, the Summer Institute was designed to complement the traditional education of neuroscience trainees by providing a series of in-depth, interactive workshops relating to entrepreneurship, innovation, business, career development, and communication. The overarching goal of this multifaceted Summer Institute was to allow neuroscience students of all backgrounds and levels to develop the skills, knowledge, and tools to bring innovative ideas out of the lab into the world. As the RADIANT website puts it:
“NICE is targeted at science trainees who are fuelled by passion and curiosity about neuroscience, but are frustrated by the apparent obstacles between work done in the lab, and things that can have a real impact on people’s lives.”
The first cohort to participate in the Summer Institute was composed of 18 people, including myself. All of us possessed different undergraduate and graduate backgrounds in various fields, including neuroscience, psychology, computer science, and business. While most participants were studying at Canadian institutions, including Dalhousie University and the University of Toronto, a few attendees were visiting from abroad. It was an amazing experience to get to befriend, interact with, and work alongside people with such diverse interests, ideas, and talents. The environment of the Summer Institute was extremely welcoming and friendly, and we all got to know each other better by relaxing over several great meals (including Dr. Newman’s epic lobster cookout last night) and social events. Hopefully we can all meet up again someday, and I invite all of my new friends to say hello if they ever find themselves in London.
Over 12 days, we soaked up the expertise of various visiting speakers, which included an impressive array of industry executives, lawyers, neuroscientists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and journalists. We were exposed to the processes of thinking creatively, conducting market research, creating business models, abiding by research ethics guidelines, protecting intellectual property, as well as communicating science through journalism. All of this served to give us a sense of how to bring science into business.
While I won’t get into the details of exactly what I learned during the course, a few workshops stood out for me. My favourite session was the one led by entrepreneurship professor Dr. Mike Goldsby (Ball State University, Indiana, USA), a charismatic, engaging, and inspiring speaker who certainly sparked the imaginations of everyone in the room. Dr. Goldsby proclaimed that, beyond the traditional view of entrepreneurs as businesspeople, entrepreneurs are artists and facilitators of new ideas. Arguing that the iterative process of bringing a new idea to market requires not only intuition and passion, but also skills in three broad domains (research, creativity, and expression), Dr. Goldsby gave us a crash course in starting a business, breaking down the factors that are critical for success. Although I don’t necessarily plan to start my own business now, what I took away from Dr. Goldsby’s workshop was a sense of the entrepreneurial mindset, which will directly help to shape my career path and boost my employability. Thinking of new career or school opportunities as entrepreneurial ventures would certainly not be a foreign idea to any graduate student who has ever had to apply for a scholarship. For example, the concept of “salesmanship” in business is virtually identical to “grantsmanship” in the academic sphere. Essentially, graduate students (or entrepreneurs) are trying to prove to a funding agency (or venture capitalists and angel investors) that, as newcomers to the science world (or the business world), they are capable and innovative enough to complete a project that will benefit society. Along with all the other skills that we need to develop during our scientific training, salesmanship/grantsmanship and being able to think in terms of the “big picture” are hugely beneficial, whether the goal is to stay in science or take things beyond the lab.
Another highlight for me was the “More Than Money” careers workshop held by the cognitive neuroscientist-turned-career-coach Dr. Mrim Boutla. Dr. Boutla’s unique approach for mapping out key priorities in life to inform future career moves really resonated with me, especially since I’m in the midst of making my transition from graduate school in Canada to working life in the UK. I have always said that my goal is to find a career in which I won’t look forward to the weekend so much. I want every day to be fulfilling. I want to love what I do, and not be counting down the seconds until Friday evening. As such, the concept of finding a career that is about more than the money really clicked with my outlook.
The RADIANT Summer Institute was packed with lectures and workshops by a whirlwind stream of experts, but we were also expected to apply what we had learned through an ambitious group project. We formed teams of 3-5 people and developed a novel business idea that we had to pitch to local venture capitalists and business leaders during a final “Dragon’s Den”-style session. I, along with 4 others, decided to target the issue of chronic low back pain, and proposed the development of special type of pain tracking/monitoring app. Over 12 days, we did market research by interviewing clinicians, researchers, and pain sufferers (locally and online via surveys), analyzed the competitive landscape, fleshed out the features of our product, then came up with a business model and customer acquisition plan, before finally putting together a presentation for the Dragons. The project was an intense exercise in teamwork, but overall an enjoyable and useful way to apply the knowledge we’d gained from the workshops. In the future, it would be useful for the organizers of the Summer Institute to break down the project into more focused milestones. From my team’s experience, the hectic nature of the course schedule, the order of the course topics, and the lack of cohesion between some of the speakers made it difficult to plan out project parts in advance. This resulted in too much stalling in the “brainstorming stage”, an excessive amount of market research, and a lack of emphasis on the financial planning. In spite of all the challenges, every team produced stellar business pitches that definitely seemed to impress the Dragons.
A RADIANT Summer Institute 2012 group shot. Photo courtesy of Dr. Aaron Newman.
2. The Issue of Science Communication
While we were very fortunate to be able to listen to such a varied group of experts, not every session was well-received by the attendees. The general consensus among our group was that the weakest session was the “Journalism 101” workshop given by several Canadian print and TV journalists, in conjunction with a Dalhousie biologist and the Science Media Centre of Canada. Given my interest in science communication, I was particularly looking forward to this workshop. The intent was to educate scientists on how to communicate their research findings to the public, but I feel that what ensued did not adequately achieve this goal. Only 1 of the journalists had any kind of formal training in the sciences, and so, instead of teaching scientists how to improve public outreach and education about science (e.g., how to tell the story effectively), the workshop ended up being more of a lecture on how scientists are inherently bad at communicating and need to make the deadline-driven lives of journalists easier by “being able to string a sentence together”.
I was disappointed in the brash and arrogant “band-aid” approach to scientific literacy that was conveyed during this workshop. Scientists and journalists may have completely different objectives, but they should both share the responsibility of ensuring that the public is well-educated and well-informed about science. It is certainly true that many scientists are bad at communicating their findings, but they need to be taught to do better. Since publicly-funded scientists owe it to the public to be able to articulate their findings clearly, they need to hone public speaking and writing skills, perhaps through mandatory communication courses during undergraduate- and graduate-level science training. On the journalism side, the effectiveness of scientific communication can be severely hampered by those “killer” deadlines, which lead to a dangerous reliance on minimal background research, inadequate fact-checking, and biased sources. From the workshop, it seemed like some of the journalists regarded members of the general public as simple consumers of scientific news information. In effect, there is a lot of science reporting in Canada that ends up treating the general public like children with short attention spans, who must be placated with sexy, punchy stories without giving a real sense of research impact or a broader context. From an educational standpoint, this approach is condescending. As scientists, we must do our part to stimulate interest in our work so that we can change the way the public thinks about and discusses science as a whole. We need to ensure that non-scientists can always access clear, good quality, accurate, and well-balanced information. Science touches the lives of everyone on the planet and affects every aspect of modern society. Communicating science poorly or superficially does everyone a great injustice.
In the future, the Summer Institute would benefit from also bringing in other science communicators, such as curators of museum exhibits, medical writers and copywriters, science bloggers, science policymakers and ethicists, and even science teachers.
3. Why Every Neuroscience Student Needs to Take a Course Like This
Being a part of the RADIANT Summer Institute has been a great experience, and it was a perfect way to finish off my MSc in Pharmacology/Neuroscience at Dalhousie University. (Now I can honestly say that the words “competitive advantage valuation” will no longer make my eyes glaze over!) Below, I’ve drawn a little concept map of different skills that are useful in science. Prior to attending the Summer Institute, I wouldn’t have intuitively considered salesmanship and creativity (innovation) to be essential skills for scientists to have. It turns out that these two skills are as important as lab or communication skills. In the constantly shifting career landscape, it will become increasingly important for scientists to understand the intersection of science with business, law, ethics, and communication. As a neuroscience student, even if you don’t create your own business, you still need to be able to understand a) how businesses grow and operate, and b) the “big picture” of how your scientific research could make an impact in the world. Hopefully, the RADIANT Summer Institute will be continue to be offered for many years to come. Congratulations to RADIANT, Dalhousie University, and Dr. Newman for developing a very useful adjunct to traditional neuroscience education in Canada.