Welcome back to In Conversation, a series of conversations with thought leaders and disruptors in the BioHealth Capital Region. This week we're talking with an up-and-coming mover and shaker, Deborah Hemingway, PhD candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park. Graduating this December with a degree in biophysics and landing a job as a CEO for a biotech start-up, Deborah took some time to share her ideas about university supported entrepreneurship with the BioHive.  

BioHive: Hey Deborah! Thanks for joining us today. Can you give us a little bit of background and how you became interested in student entrepreneurship?

Deborah Hemingway: I'm a PhD candidate in biophysics at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD), and I’m graduating this semester. Though I am a research scientist, entrepreneurship has always been an interest of mine. As a student, I’ve had first-hand experience with student entrepreneurship. In addition to my own experience as a student entrepreneur, I've also been very active in our Graduate Student Government; (having served two years as my program’s representative, one year as a VP, and then two more years as the graduate student body president). One of my platform issues was to increase preparation for graduate students to pursue multiple career paths. That includes careers outside of academia in industry, nonprofits, and other areas that are not necessarily in the student’s direct degree field. Entrepreneurship is prime example of one of these areas.

I also have a personal interest in this platform. I mentioned my interest in entrepreneurship. I was very keen on increasing my business knowledge while on campus. I would have loved to have pursued a PhD/MBA, but UMD doesn’t (yet!) offer this option or allow custom dual-degree programs. So while I couldn't officially take classes in the business school, I’ve taken advantage of the opportunities that are available and have been able to benefit from the wisdom of those at the business school and specifically from members of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, who have advised me and supported my entrepreneurial learning goals. 

BH: What’s the next step for you? 

DH: I recently became entrepreneurial lead/CEO of a biotech startup with IP that is coming out of UMD. We are in the process of conducting customer validation interviews and applying for startup funding. In addition, I also have a consulting business, and I own another small business as well. I would also like to continue to do advocacy work for increasing innovation and entrepreneurship in academia. Some people would argue that a university’s place isn't in entrepreneurship - it’s in education. I personally do not hold that view. I think most people could benefit from some form of entrepreneurship in at least some aspect of their lives. Entrepreneurship can exist in many forms--it's all about creativity, design, and bringing something new to the world. In that sense, we should all be entrepreneurs.

BH: How do you envision making entrepreneurship more of a living part of universities?

DH: By weaving entrepreneurship throughout the entire curriculum. At a lot of institutions, there seems to be departmental silos where a single department stays within its own bubble on its own side of campus without making or taking the opportunity to engage in inter-disciplinary opportunities and thinking. I think this creates an artificial disconnect between science and entrepreneurship. Breaking down this barrier could be beneficial for everyone.

I would love to see science students being able to take business classes that count as electives. Or even better, why not create classes that blend different disciplines like physics and entrepreneurship? We are already doing a little of this in the undergraduate curriculum at UMD. Perhaps grad classes could benefit as well.

BH: What would your top two pieces of advice be for new PhD students who are interested in entrepreneurship?

DH: It starts by taking a step back and being really honest with yourself. Find out what you like and what you’re good at. Be proactive about finding your strengths and finding the career paths that play to your strengths. If it’s entrepreneurship, that’s awesome. Go and network with people in the business school. Find someone who can take you on as a mentor and learn everything you can from them. Involve yourself with people who are where you want to be.

And we hear this everywhere because it is true: Soft skills are so important. Go to a public speaking class, go to an etiquette dinner, and learn how to shake someone’s hand properly. These are good skills to have even if you never end up diving head first into entrepreneurship. You can be an exceptional researcher, but you’re going to have problems if you can’t work with people in your lab, manage grad students, or create a budget. 

BH: I know you had some other thoughts that you wanted to share with us. Take it away!

DH: I’ve been thinking a lot about growing entrepreneurship on campus, and we’ve talked a lot about the students, but there is another group of key stakeholders on campus, and that is the faculty.

It seems to me that many times the incentives are not aligned in such a way so as to encourage entrepreneurship amongst the faculty. One example of this is the academia tenure package. There are number of varying requirements that go in to a tenure package at various institutions, but they mostly involve research publications and grant funding. Why not make entrepreneurship an element of getting tenure? Why not have a patent be weighted as much as a research publication? Why not have royalties from licensed IP count towards funding amounts brought in? This would align incentives and be a win-win situation for all stakeholders. In my opinion, if you want to jump start entrepreneurship on campus, this is the way to do it.

And finally, I mentioned earlier that after graduation, I’ll be working with a startup with IP from the university. My long-term plan is to grow the company so that it is in a place where it can be a corporate sponsor of the lab on campus where the IP was developed. I am fully convinced that this is the model of the future--for university labs to receive funding from the start-ups they create. If this model works, I’d like to expand it to other labs and lead a wave of technology commercialization inspired by academia. 

Thanks for joining us for this week's In Conversation! Check back soon for the next installment of In Conversation and, in the meantime, join the conversation with Deborah below in the comments.