Entrepreneurial Careers for Chemists
So maybe none of the other sectors appeal to you, and you’ve decided to start your own company. Approximately 1–2% of all chemists do just that. They may have a great idea for a new product, or want the flexibility that comes with controlling their own destiny. Being an entrepreneur requires understanding the business side of science and learning a completely new language of business plans, marketing, advertising, competitive intelligence, market analysis, cash flow, taxes, applicable regulations, intellectual property protection, financing, and much more. Entrepreneurs must decide which things they are going to do themselves, and which they are going to pay someone else to do. Running your own business can be a tightrope walk without a net. If you thrive on challenge and self-reliance, this may be the career path for you.
Nancy McGuire will be the first to admit that her career has been a long, winding journey. After obtaining her B.S., she began her career as a lab technician at a company in her hometown. After earning her Ph.D. at Arizona State University, she embarked on a remarkable career journey that ultimately led her to become a freelance science communicator.
Many chemists recommend beginning your career in a more traditional job, to learn how businesses run, build a network of potential mentors and clients, and establish a financial cushion to take you through the difficult process of starting a business. Often, chemists with 20 or more years of experience become consultants, building on the expertise and connections they accumulated over the course of their careers.
Universities often provide opportunities for their faculty members to commercialize products and processes that they have developed in their laboratories, a process called "technology transfer". It is not uncommon for academic scientists to establish startup businesses based on their own discoveries, and sometimes these businesses become so successful that the scientists become full-time entrepreneurs. Scientists must take care to follow their university's policies and rules when setting up a new business, to prevent legal and ethical difficulties down the road.
Likewise, industrial and government chemists must make themselves familiar with the laws and company policies that affect their activities. Non-compete and non-solicitation rules ensure that a company's employees do not take unfair advantage of their insider knowledge to set up competing businesses, and government anti-corruption laws discourage government workers from taking unfair advantage of their position and authority.
Preferred Status for Small Businesses
Small companies and startup companies can take advantage of government contracts that give them a preferred status. In addition, companies with specialized products and capabilities are well positioned to land contract work that fills a specific government need. Government agencies often hold conferences and trade shows to allow companies to display technologies that might interest the agency. Agencies also issue requests for information (RFIs) and requests for proposals (RFPs) when they are looking for specific products and capabilities. At the federal level, many of these opportunities are listed at FedBizOpps, a multi-agency website run by the General Accounting Office (https://www.fbo.gov).
No matter which sector you choose, one of the best things you can do while still in school is to get as much laboratory experience as possible, preferably in a field similar to where you want to work after graduation. The specific type of experience you get doesn’t matter so much as making sure that you learn instrumentation, laboratory techniques, scientific calculations, problem solving, and so on. Take advantage of opportunities to learn and practice non-technical skills, such as written and oral communication, time management, leadership, and teamwork. There will be a lot of on-the-job training, but you will need to be capable of keeping your own schedule, keeping a good laboratory notebook, recording observations completely and accurately, storing data properly, communicating your work with others, and so on. All these skills will come in handy, no matter which sector ends up being right for you.
Careers in Entrepreneurship
- Consulting firm (safety, quality, technical communications)
- Contract R&D services
- Manufacturing a product to sell
- Developing an idea to license
- Chemical writing, editing, and literature search services
- Intellectual property law services