The Globe and Mail: More PhDs are leaving academia to launch their own businesses

Harrison Brown had a choice after completing his Master of Science degree three years ago: Take a job in the U.S. related to his research in sports concussions or keep studying and build his own company.

For Mr. Brown, it was a no-brainer. He and a fellow University of British Columbia student, MBA graduate Kerry Costello, founded HeadCheck Health, a tool that athletic trainers can use on the sidelines to assess potential concussions.

As Mr. Brown works on his PhD at the UBC School of Kinesiology, in the field of sensorimotor physiology, he, Ms. Costello and a third co-founder Alexey Manov are building HeadCheck and marketing the product to sports teams across North America.

It’s all part of Mr. Brown’s plan to pursue the path of entrepreneurship, instead of becoming a professor, researcher or working for someone else.

“I’m not the type of person that wants to sit in a lab and crunch numbers for the rest of my life,” Mr. Brown said. “I enjoy doing that and I’m good at it, but I have other passions in life. I enjoy business and socializing with people in a different setting.”

He’s also pursuing his own company with full knowledge of the risks, including that many startups fall flat.

“I’m going this way because it’s something that I’m passionate about. It allows me to take the skills that I’ve learned in research and have a larger impact,” said Mr. Brown, who has suffered from concussions while playing on a rugby team in his teenage years.

Mr. Brown is one of a growing number of PhDs skipping the academic route to start their own businesses. Universities across Canada are capitalizing on the trend by launching entrepreneurship programs to help students build their companies. For example, UBC has its e@ubc program, which Mr. Brown and Ms. Costello are involved in, while the University of Toronto has its Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (BBCIE). These programs, and others like them, provide mentorship and education on how to start and run a business.

More PhDs are seeking these skills in part because professor jobs and other academic positions are hard to get, but also because they’ve seen the success others with similar credentials have had starting a business based on their research. Many are interested in doing more than putting their findings on paper to sit on a library shelf, but proving them commercially.

“We’re graduating a lot more PhDs from the program,” said BBCIE academic director Cynthia Goh.

That includes some students who turn their PhD thesis into a company.

“What we need is to get the students aware of what the world needs so we can make the connection,” she said. “It’s not necessarily the thesis that become the product, but the knowledge.”

Ms. Goh said the BBCIE program tries to teach PhD students enough about entrepreneurship so they can decide if they want to run a company on their own, or hire a more business-oriented partner to help out.

“It’s not an easy path,” Ms. Goh said of entrepreneurship, but believes many PhD students are well suited.

“Most people became scientists not because they want to get a job, but because they’re excited about the science and passionate about their work. That’s the same kind we want to be entrepreneurs,” Ms. Goh said.

A lot of doctoral students are risk takers, which is what makes them good entrepreneurs, said Rob Annan, chief research officer at Mitacs, a national not-for-profit organization that develops research partnerships between industry and the academic world.

In 2014-15, Mitacs funded more than 3,300 industry-academic collaborations involving PhD students. Of those, 14 per cent, or 462 PhD students, started their own business, Mr. Annan said.

“Being a doctoral student and being an entrepreneur aren’t that different,” Mr. Annan said. “You have to be very self-directed. … You work ridiculously long hours for uncertain outcomes. You’re hoping for the big hit on your ideas – and it’s your own cleverness that helps you sink or swim.”

Mr. Annan did his PhD in biochemistry and didn’t think of himself as an entrepreneur until he compared notes with his younger brother Scott Annan, who started the tech company in Ottawa.

“I realized we were going through a very similar process: Learning through trial and error, going through dark periods of despair where you think you’ll never succeed. Then you have these ‘eureka’ moments.”

When he graduated, the older Mr. Annan started his own consulting company, instead of going the academic route.

“It wasn’t that big of a transition to be building a business on my own compared to chasing a research question on my own,” he said. “I think we can do more to make that link more obvious to students and show them they’re gaining some of the skills to become good entrepreneurs.”

Byline: Brenda Bouw