Have you ever thought of creating your own company?
More than ever, college graduates are considering entrepreneurship as a career option. A global scale survey in 2021, involving around 267,000 undergraduate and graduate students from 58 countries revealed that around 11% of the students already own a business or running a startup, whereas a whooping 50% expressed their interest in entrepreneurship immediately after, or within five years of graduation (Ozdemir 2022). Whether you’re just curious, on the fence, or already contemplating a career in this field, this blog is tailor-made for you!
How is a startup different from academic research?
In plant science, specifically in agriculture, the biggest challenge is to meet the growing demand for food, considering diminishing arable lands and environmental health. As much as academic research is playing a vital role in addressing this urgent need, plant-science/agri-based startups play an equally important role. Whereas academic research focuses on ‘discovery’, industry and startups thrive on ‘innovation’. As a plant scientist, if you’re seeking immediate impact of your work, startups may just be the right choice for you.
But, before committing to such a career path, it is wiser to have a weighted view on its current trends, challenges, and opportunities. This blog would attempt to address such specific aspects.
Things to consider when switching from academia to entrepreneurship
Switching a career from academia to entrepreneurship comes with its own challenges and uncertainties. Agri-based startups have their unique challenges, especially when the product directly involves plants / tissue culture, which may take up to weeks to grow in contrast with yeast/cells which can grow overnight (SOSV Team, 2020). Startups involving this kind of product should consider this aspect of investment of time and energy. Regulatory approvals of new crop varieties are also something that can slow things down, and especially gene-edited crops (which are considered non-GMO) come with their own challenges in specific continents.
Therefore, aligning the startup idea with the country’s policy, market demand, and required time from prototype to market-ready product development are important points to consider.
The good news is that Agriculture is witnessing a record sum of investment in recent years (Metinko 2022). Funds could be raised at different levels and stages of startups. If someone has identified market opportunities or is at a stage of developing prototypes, one might consider ‘pre-seed’ funding from investors. Typically, Angel investors (a high net-worth individual) fund this type of startups and following successful pre-seed funding and business development, one can look for seed funding, series funding and so on from venture capitalists or other business entities. While fundraising can fast-track the growth of business, typically these investments demand equity shares from the company and therefore startup founders should also expect influence from the investors (The Carta team 2023).
II. Regulatory approvals and intellectual property protection
Patenting ‘intellectual property’ should be seen as an integral part of a company’s business strategies and corporate development. It provides a legal right to the inventor to exclude others from manufacturing, selling, and using the solution developed (World intellectual property organization). The core value of a patent is protection of key ideas/technology the startup is based on. Failure to obtain a license of the key ideas/technologies may be fatal and may lead to issues while seeking investment or merger with other companies. It should be noted that, whereas patents are granted to the inventor, it could be owned by the company and the company holds a license to utilize the invention even when the inventor leaves the company.
III. Plant science-based startups
Agriculture has witnessed substantial reforms within its startup ecosystems, with renewed interests in precision farming, regenerative agriculture, gene edited crop-varieties, indoor or vertical farming, alternate proteins, soil health management, bio stimulants, and others. For example, Kula Bio (US-based startup) provides biofertilizer based solution for nitrogen management in crops (Kula Bio), has recently raised $50 million through series A funding to extend its operational services (Marston 2022). DeHaat (India-based startup) is leveraging AI to provide end-to-end solutions to the farmers in rural India, and has recently raised $60 million in series E funding (The Economic Times). In the gene-editing space, Phytoform (a London and Boston based startup) has raised $5.7 million to develop gene-edited crops with the application of AI (Samorodnitsky 2023). The above examples are only a handful of many successful startups to follow their business models, core technologies, and philosophies.
How to get into the startup culture?
Exposure to startup ecosystems would be highly beneficial before committing to such endeavors. Fortunately, there are several such tailored programs that can provide a flavor of what startup environments may look like and what the investors look for to invest in a business proposition. If you are based in an academic institution, enrolling into an ‘incubator’ or ‘accelerator’ program within or outside your institute may be useful. These programs offer a structured and guided roadmap for idea generation, team building, development of business proposition, and even pre-seed grants for developing prototypes. Apart from the academic institution-based accelerator and incubation programs, there are ample opportunities outside, such as Entrepreneurs First (EF). Getting into such programs will not only provide the right ecosystem for startups, but also connect with mentors and business partners for long-term business development.
Agri-based startups are undergoing transformation, fueled by the evolving landscape of climate change, shifting diet habits, and technological innovations. The push towards the greater goal of achieving sustainable food production will require concerted efforts to translate fundamental research into innovations and enterprises. Awareness into the realm of startup ecosystems would therefore be essential for plant-scientists in becoming part of the greater cause. While a ‘change’ may be challenging for academic researchers, it could also be rewarding to witness research having an immediate impact.
About the Author
Arijit Mukherjee is presently a final-year PhD candidate at the National University of Singapore, and a 2024 Plantae Fellow. He is studying how plants and their extraordinarily diverse microorganisms influence each other’s functioning under nutrient deficiency. You can find him on X: @ArijitM61745830.