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PhDs and entrepreneurship: Why not make a move?

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

A blog series by Adoc Talent Management on business creation as a PhD

Since its creation 11 years ago, Adoc Talent Management has been working with various organizations to help them recruit PhDs and high-level technical and scientific candidates. The company also trains researchers in finding satisfying careers outside of academia, and supports those who choose to leave their mark by setting up their own companies. This is why we decided to present a series of interviews on PhD entrepreneurship with Amandine Bugnicourt, co-founder and CEO of Adoc Talent Management

« I never thought of becoming an entrepreneur before founding Adoc Talent Management! »

As a PhD holder yourself, how did you decide to found your own company?

Let me start by saying I was not a "born" an entrepreneur. Honestly, I never thought of becoming one before I founded Adoc Talent Management! I think this is the case for most PhDs who ultimately decide to set up their own companies, especially when it valorizes their research results: they do so after finding their big idea that they can use in new products or services to disrupt this or that sector. People who are born entrepreneurs will get started, and then find their big idea. In the case of Adoc Talent Management, Matthieu (Lafon, co-founder of Adoc Talent Management) and I had been involved in the doctoral ecosystem for several years. Being in frequent contact with actors involved in the doctoral field: companies, doctoral students and PhDs themselves, universities, etc., we identified one of the obstacles to their recruitment in companies: the perceived complexity in hiring these profiles for some companies. Our big idea is really that we should promote the doctorate and one way to do it is helping PhDs get the jobs that they want, notably in the private sector. This is how our entrepreneurial journey began. We were trying to take action on this issue through our engagement in various associations, and it just made so much sense to set our company up and get to support companies in a very operational way in identifying and recruiting good talents

What is the impact of researchers-led startups in France?

In our most recent Emploi study (2017) the proportion of PhDs who reported being their own employer (entrepreneurs, self-employed) increased significantly, from 1% after graduation to 3% three years later, and finally to 4% five years after graduation. That said, researchers-led startups are very well represented in certain sectors, particularly in innovative technologies. This can be seen in the MESRI concours iLab, which supports the development of deep tech start-ups. In 2018, 40% of the recipients were PhDs, I cannot stress enough how huge that is!

« There is no fixed model to copy as in other, more classical businesses. »

As a PhD, why choose entrepreneurship over a regular research job?

It allows you to bring to life an idea that is dear to you, and you get to do it in your own way (mostly), and in accordance with your own values. It is very rewarding to provide an innovative solution to a specific, unresolved problem. This is also what makes creating an innovative startup such an arduous task. There is no fixed model to copy as in other, more classical business, everything has to be invented, for instance, technological components, their adoption by market actors, business models, internal organizational models, etc.

Is entrepreneurship for everyone?

I don't think so. It does require a certain appetite for risk. One surely has to accept failure as a possibility; and precariousness in the early stages is a pretty testing reality. One also needs to have lots of energy because we're talking long - and I mean long- working days, every week, and things won’t slow down with the years. If you’re leaving academia, one of the more challenging aspects of creating a company is saying goodbye to full-time research. There might be research involved, but then you have a business to run! Going forward with setting up a business is a very personal choice, and a big decision to make, especially in France. Unlike in some other countries where getting through setbacks is seen as a good thing - or as a formative experience at least- one’s employability can take a hit if their company fails or stops its activities. Things are changing, especially in some sectors, but generally there are still some persistent fears about entrepreneurs. There still is suspicions about whether they will be manageable in a team, if they will be OK with having superiors above them. One should thoroughly reflect on how badly they want to do it, because going back is not so easy. Going back to being a wage worker, they should focus on presenting the skills they developed by running their business.

« A good business leader brings people together around a common vision, accepts their own limits and finds solutions to complement them. »

What are some skills acquired during a PhD that can be useful for entrepreneurship?

There are so many, as both involve creating news things or ideas, here are some important ones that I can think of: creativity, tenacity, resistance to failure, steadfastness during uncertainty, understanding of emerging trends, scientific watch, collaboration, knowledge mobilization, research funding, persuasion, communicating complex ideas to different audiences. This is not a complete list of all the skills useful to entrepreneurs, but these are some pretty significant ones. I often say that there is not only one type of entrepreneur, and I think that’s for the better! During training workshops with entrepreneurs, I sometimes remind them that they probably won’t become the next Bill Gates tomorrow morning, and that's okay. “Be yourself, with your strengths and weaknesses. A good business leader brings people together around a common vision, accepts their own limits and finds solutions to complement them.” You have to be honest with yourself, first about your willingness to launch a business and then, about your strengths well in order to put them to good use in projects. It is also necessary to know one’s own weaknesses, to seek training and maybe fill certain gaps, but also to hire employees and partners who will be complementary.

What skills one should strive to develop when creating a business?

It always depends on the business itself, as well as the employees and associates who make up the team. Successfully running a specific business calls for specific skills (i.e.: Management, Finance, Development, Certification, Production, Sales, etc.). The goal here is to have a team that covers them all.

Of course, a PhD might not also be a chartered accountant, or be very well versed in business law, marketing, taxation, HR and so on. However, as an entrepreneur, having at least some understanding of all these issues and others is important, at least to be able to direct employees and suppliers. During the earlier phases of the business, CEO really stands for "Chief Everything Officer" (as expressed by Dr Arnault Ioualalen, Founder and CEO of Numalis). Becoming an entrepreneur means being ready to do 15 different jobs all at once. Finally, I don't know if this can really be called a skill, but for sure one of the more challenging things when leaving academic research positions to start a business is delivering something imperfect, quickly. PhDs have strived for perfection for so many years, so that’s a big paradigm shift, to say the least.

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