New, but not too new

From time to time our lab research gets spun off into various start-up companies. We’ve done it a few times now, so we know the general terrain.

But one issue that never changes is the difference between what’s valuable in University research and what’s valuable in a start-up company. The values differ because each is optimizing for something different.

University research optimizes for a general sense of expanding knowledge. From that perspective, it doesn’t matter who makes money from that knowledge.

It doesn’t even matter if the knowledge won’t be of practical use to anyone for another twenty years. The important thing is the overall arc of long-lasting impact.

But start-up companies are first and foremost about bringing into the world something that is economically self-sustaining. And it has to be economically self-sustaining the relatively short term.

You need to create something useful fairly soon, but that in itself is not sufficient. You also need to make sure that the world knows to beat a path to your door.

In other words, you need to create something new, but not too new. If your idea is so far ahead of the curve that nobody else can understand why it’s important, then you’ll just run out of money before you manage to get your product or service out into the world.

It can be difficult for people from Academia to make the psychological transition from “great research idea” to “great start-up idea”. When you’ve been spending years optimizing for one value system, it can be hard to switch gears and optimize for a different value system. There are many ways to get it wrong.

Yet sometimes we manage to get it right. And when we do, it feels great. 🙂

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