Postdoc Project Aims to Turn Scientists into CEOs

The Washington region is chock full of brainy researchers who come into town for a handful of years to put their knowledge to use during a fellowship at a federal lab, developing innovative intellectual property or possible cures for wicked diseases. But then they leave, taking their brainy ideas and their economy-boosting talent with them.

To curb that problem, an economic development body in Rockville, Md., has embarked on an initiative to entice post-doctorates to stay and set up small businesses or find jobs at larger firms or labs.

"As an economic developer, I looked at this workforce and said what an opportunity," said Sally Sternbach, executive director of Rockville Economic Development, the group that's hosting an Oct. 16 event in Bethesda highlighting the initiative.

For example, the National Institutes of Health spends $2.8 billion annually on research done in their own labs, according to Sternbach. "How can you have $2.8 billion of research in your backyard and not have a robust industry being generated and fed by it?"

While many postdocs seek out a job in academia, there are two postdocs for every one position that opens up, according to Sternbach. "We want to show them other career paths and see if we can get them excited about entrepreneurism or job matching."

The Rockville group, known as REDI, is working with other groups with a vested interest in bumping up the region's supply of scientists, technologists and researchers -- such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Institutes for Health, the National Research Council and the Fairfax Economic Development Authority, among others. Some private firms have also been involved. Human Genome Sciences sat on the event's planning committee.

Sternbach estimates that there are somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 postdocs in the region at any given time and about 1,000 of them are seeking jobs. REDI expects up to 800 postdocs and about 45 hiring companies to attend this month's event. The inaugural event had 425 attendees.

But even the smartest researcher on the block can fail at trying to run a business. Sternbach said there's a range of assistance available to help scientists and others learn the ropes of becoming a chief executive officer.

NIH offers a certificate course for potential small business owners who seek to take their knowledge cultivated in a lab to the commercial market. Maryland's Technology Development Corporation, or TEDCO, offers similar classes as do many area universities. The Federal Laboratory Consortium lists upcoming events. REDI is also in talks to expand the University of Maryland-Baltimore County's Activate program that trains women with significant technical or business experience to be entrepreneurs and to create start-up companies focused on inventions from Maryland research institutions and federal agencies.

By Sharon McLoone |  October 7, 2008; 7:11 AM ET Networking
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Comments

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Congratulations and thank you for starting an organized effort in this direction. There are many postdocs who will get instantly interested in such an initiative. It might take some effort to get the scientists to think a bit like business people, but that's the main challenge and the biggest opportunity. I think awareness programs that will help postdocs understand their true worth will also be useful. Scientists are inherently very self-critical people, sometimes to point of crippling their own efforts. But thank you for making a start.

Posted by: Anshu Roy | October 8, 2008 12:31 PM

There is also a class being offered at Montgomery College called "Technology-based businesses: ideas to products" that is a great introductory course for anyone who thinks they might be interested in starting a technology-based business. At one night a week for 4 weeks at Montgomery College's Rockville campus, this is an easy way to find out if entrepreneurship is for you!

Posted by: Julie Lenzer Kirk | October 9, 2008 8:04 PM

hi,
I am interested in more information about the NIH certificate program cited in the article. I contacted people at NIH about the same but in vain. I was not able to find enough information. Could anyone provide me with more information on the NIH certificate for potential small business owners.
Thanks

Posted by: naveen reddy | October 14, 2008 3:46 PM

hi,
I am interested in more information about the NIH certificate program cited in the article. I contacted people at NIH about the same but in vain. I was not able to find enough information. Could anyone provide me with more information on the NIH certificate for potential small business owners.
Thanks

Posted by: naveen reddy | October 14, 2008 3:47 PM

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