Why Asian and African researchers don’t pursue entrepreneurial dreams


Earlier this week, at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, Japanese Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka made a rather funny confession: For a while he suffered from a syndrome which he calls PAD. Post America Depression is a condition most good researchers experience when they leave the thriving and competitive world of American university research system. He faced it too when he had to leave, he said.


But unlike many immigrant scientists, Yamanaka went to the United States on a mission – to become a physician scientist and discover new therapies for patients. He was happy training as a resident at Osaka National Hospital until his father died. By that time he had also seen some limitations – his own, as a surgeon and medicine’s at large in not being able to cure many diseases. So he switched to a PhD programme in pharmacology and later went to the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases in San Francisco for post-doctoral work.


Pic credit: WCSJ


It was when he returned to Japan that he understood what distinguished America in driving innovation, biomedical breakthroughs in particular: A well-oiled system of basic research well understood by venture capitalists and well exploited by big pharmaceutical and medical technology companies. In Seoul this week, Yamanaka lamented that “VCs are missing in Japan; they find it tough to survive”.

“Asians are not trained to take risk in their science either,” he added. This remark would a ring a bell for many.


Incidentally, Science magazine this week has a cover story that discusses the craft of a few scientists in taking campus research to commercialization. In the editorial, The Entrepreneurial Gardeners, Iqbal Qadir, founder and director emeritus of the Lagatum Centre for Development and Entrepreneurship writes:


Every population has entrepreneurs who push forward to the extent possible. The tragedy of the past 70 years has been state bureaucracies impeding this natural push. This push can also be misdirected. In the 1960s, South Asian and African governments invested in universities to train students in science and engineering. These efforts did not lead to economic vibrancy, but instead came with state-dominated economies that suppressed commerce and entrepreneurship and kept citizens economically weak. Science and engineering bees flew to blooming Western commercial flowers. Today, about 70% of African-born immigrants to North America have a university education.


Indian economy has been no different, dependent for a long time on import substitution in most government-funded research labs – academic institutions too imported their PhD ideas to a great extent – and outsourced service model in the industry. Now, some segments of the economy wish to change, but in the absence of any field data it’s hard to say how many PhDs for instance would like to start their company. This data is crucial for any large scale or radical reform in scientific or technical institutions.


In this Science edition, Michael Roach and Henry Sauermann write they surveyed nearly 4200 science and engineering PhD candidates in tier 1 American research universities in 2014 and found that 46 percent were interested in joining a startup as an employee but only 11 percent hoped to start their own company some day. In India, most engineering and some science institutions have incubators but except a few at some IITs, most are still chasing entrepreneurial efforts which can categorize as just dreams.


Yamanaka said the Japanese government is now promoting venture funds and researchers are collaborating with big companies. His centre has established “direct collaboration” with the local pharma company Takeda and the list of potential commercial programs from his centre that he outlined at the conference was amazing, especially for a recent field like stem cells. In fact, Japan has today swung to the other extreme where a new law gives conditional approval for untested medical technologies. Yamanaka is aware of the pitfalls and agrees that it could mean trouble if rogue entrepreneurs misuse it and hence “ the scientific immunity must keep an eye on what is going on and say no to harmful applications.”


The set of stories on scientist-entrepreneurs in Science this week is fascinating, among other things for one specific reason. Most of the featured scientists are on the wrong side of 50 or the right side of 60, an age bracket where most academics in India, already risk-phobic turn more averse to new ideas in research or commercialization.


But isn’t 50s the new 30s? While the adrenaline-pumping and valuation-courting business ideas in information and communication technologies may require the founder to be young — younger the better, actually – bio-medical sciences, for a good reason, do well with founders with experience and academic rigour. After all, healthcare is the world’s most regulated market and life cannot be traded on any e-commerce market place. Take, for example, Michael Weiss’ story on page 1193 in Science. After studying insulin for more than 30 years to be able to make “ultra-heatstable” analogs, this biochemistry professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, took a two-year sabbatical in 2010 to study business management. He was 53.


I’ve written in the past on scientists and entrepreneurship (here, here and here) and I can’t help repeating a quote from the former dean of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, Pradeep K Khosla. It neatly sums up the situation, rather the anti-situation in India:

“As dean, I probably make more money than many CEOs because to keep me where I am they have to compete with the company that wants me. So it cannot be that because I am in a university, because I chose a life of being a Brahmin and I’m going to be given food and clothing for a living.”


Apart from discouraging this Brahminism, if there’s one wrinkle that the Indian government and institutions must apply the anti-aging treatment to, it is sorting out the intellectual property ownership, become more largehearted towards it. I know some cases where the central funding agencies have haggled for IP ownership. They can instead choose to take a share of the licensing fee or royalty from sales but to demand co-ownership of IP is sometimes detrimental to attracting investors, strategic or pure financial.


Investors, venture capitalists in particular, are not easy to understand. One of them interviewed in the journal is Anthony Sun who works for Aisling Capital in New York and has the coolest definition: “It’s a really opaque entity that doesn’t exactly hang a shingle or has a 1-800 line that you can call.”


To get more Asian and African scientists to dream of entrepreneurship and then chase it to the hilt, training them to deal with investors is the first step. They are like two electrons orbiting within the same unstable atom that modern day innovation is.



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  1. A sharp viewpoint and relevant too as most universities want to make money off tech transfers. Governments want to boost economy by innovations but I am wondering if the NDA govt, which is cutting science budgets, even considers scientific activities as contributors to country’s prosperity.

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