We all know the stereotype of the scientist: White coat, intelligent, highly detail-oriented and very much at peace in the sanctity off their lab.
However, more and more, we’re seeing another side to scientists – many actually make great business people. The focus and problem-solving skills that make them terrific chemists, physicists or engineers are among the same ingredients that shape great business minds.
And, as Canada embarks on an innovation agenda under the Trudeau government, scientists can play a crucial role helping start-ups and corporate leaders bridge the cycle of doom that often crushes promising ideas before they can be brought to market and commercialized.
Canada has a long track record of innovation. We are one of the heaviest funders of discovery research in the world. We’re fortunate to have a highly trained and educated workforce. We also have a wealth of budding entrepreneurs with no shortage of bright ideas for new technologies.
But where we often falter is in the critical stages of moving from research to scale-up and commercialization. That’s where many start-ups fall into the gap and fail to get their ideas off the ground. And that’s where scientists who are as comfortable in corporate board rooms as they are in research labs can lend their expertise, guiding start-ups past the risks threatening to take them down before they really begin.
Consider what Michael Schulhof, the former president and CEO of Sony Corporation of America, had to say on the subject in a column in Scientific American.
“Scientists understand the process of critical thinking. They know how to analyze problems by concentrating on the important elements and filtering out the irrelevant,” he wrote. “… They are willing to admit there are things they do not understand and then take the time to find out what it is they don’t know. Business needs that kind of vision and that kind of intellectual courage.”
As a former physicist himself, Schulhof was speaking from firsthand experience of someone who had traded his lab coat for a business suit as a leader of one of the world’s most popular technology brands.
And while Schulhof penned that column more than 20 years ago, it’s as true today as it ever was.
At the Xerox Research Centre of Canada (XRCC) we see the power of fusing the worlds of science and business together on a daily basis.
For more than 40 years, Xerox engineered new materials like inks, toners and photoreceptors for the company’s own purposes at the research lab. As the primary advanced materials research and development centre for Xerox’s operations around the globe, virtually every Xerox product in market today has been influenced in some way by the research team in Mississauga.
But over the past four years, we have opened the doors to our lab so we can put our experience and expertise to work for other companies, collaborating with them to research and develop high-tech products and bring them to market.
Members of our team have been able to draw on the problem-solving skills they developed in the lab to help start-ups identify risks, demonstrate the value-proposition of their technologies and guide them through the steps to commercialization.
As much as Canada would benefit from bringing more scientists with deep research and technical experience into the boardroom, we have to also acknowledge that not everyone is cut out for making the move out of the lab.
Mixing science and business requires individuals who can look beyond solving the pure science problems tied to a new product or technology. They have to be able to see the larger picture, where they have to take commercial problems and the challenges of a global market as well.
As Canada tries to reach its innovation potential and improve the country’s overall competitiveness on the world stage, it would do well to tap into the business acumen of the men and women solving problems in labs across the country.
About the Author
Dr. Paul Smith is the Vice President and Centre Manager of the Mississauga-based Xerox Research Centre of Canada (XRCC), home to a world-class team of scientists and engineers with broad expertise in materials chemistry, formulation design, prototyping, testing, and chemical process engineering.