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Write a Grant Proposal, Start a Company, Create Your Own Job

Given reports that fewer recently minted life-sciences Ph.D.’s are landing full-time academic jobs while more are spending an increasing number of years as postdocs, it may be time to consider some alternatives.

One alternative is to create your own job. If you are a graduate student or a postdoctoral fellow working on a project that has potential commercial value (i.e., it could result in a product that someone will buy), consider turning the project into your first job.

How? First, disclose your idea to your university’s technology-transfer office. The personnel there can help you determine whether your idea has merit, and whether it can be protected by patents, trademarks, or copyright. If you are conducting your research at a university, the university probably has ownership rights; and if your idea is a good one, the university may file for intellectual-property protection on its own dime. Fortunately for you, it is obligated by U.S. law (under the Bayh-Dole Act, aka the Patent and Trademark Law Amendments Act) to share the proceeds with inventors, who typically receive 25 to 35 percent.

You still need that first job, however, and other legislation can help. Each federal agency with an extramural research budget exceeding $100-million is required to spend 2.5 percent of that budget on the Small Business Innovation Research program. The SBIR program finances high-risk research of potentially significant commercial value. SBIR recipients must be U.S.-based, for-profit small businesses with fewer than 500 employees, including subsidiaries. They must also be at least 51-percent owned and controlled by one or more people who are citizens of, or permanent resident aliens in, the United States. Eleven federal agencies participate in the program. Program solicitations can be found here; the SBIR Gateway also provides a handy searchable database for open solicitations.

Some agencies, particularly defense agencies, solicit solutions to their own needs; if your company wins a defense SBIR award, the U.S. Department of Defense is the likely customer. Other agencies, like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, have broader solicitations designed to inspire creative problem solving—in this case, you have to define the problem and therefore the market. It’s very important to answer a real market need; you don’t want to have a technology searching for a market.

Phase I SBIR awards range from about $75,000 to $150,000 and typically last for six to 12 months. The average odds of winning one are 1 in 8 (success rates are published here). Research can be subcontracted to a university, but the principal investigator must be employed by the small business. The small business and the university may agree to let the PI work as a visiting scientist in the research lab of his or her adviser, and may option or license any related intellectual property to the small business. SBIR awards allow a small business to earn profits (typically about 7 percent of the total award). Phase II awards can reach $1-million and last one to two years.

Some accelerators (such as Southeast TechInventures) will file an SBIR proposal under their for-profit tax ID’s and host the Phase I research, then spin off successful Phase I projects into a new company in exchange for equity in the new company. Other alternatives include forming a partnership with a local small company, or forming a new company (typically an LLC) to submit the proposal.

Be sure to check with your state’s commerce department about SBIR incentives and matching grants. Some states offer small grants (about $3,000) just for submitting an application—that’s enough to cover the cost of incorporation and corporate-tax-return preparation. Other states, like Kentucky, match Phase I grants dollar for dollar. So find a solicitation, find or start a company, win an award, and create your own first job. It can be done.

Gina Stewart has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin. She is the chief executive and co-founder of Arctic Inc., which develops sustainable methods of weed control for turf and agriculture.

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