Confessions of an (ex)academic: from lab to start-up co-founder

If someone were to ask me today what I do for work, I would cringe slightly and answer, “Well, I’m a Managing Director slash co-founder of an Agritech start-up building technological solutions for wool growers”.

To be fair anyone listening would assume that I have a background in either business, wool growing, or technology. Truth be told, it’s none of the above (cue imposter syndrome).

Prior to last year, my previous 20 were spent in university research laboratories, classrooms and raising children. My qualifications include a PhD in Medicine, a Graduate diploma in secondary teaching and mother of two. So then how did I go from benchtop to farm (or boardroom) without an MBA, farming experience, or an engineering degree?

Well, I’m glad you asked (let’s assume)… and I hope my story provides you with a new appreciation for the skills you already have and how to use them to enable you to move across different work sectors.

Usually, when we are listing our skills on a resume, CV or LinkedIn, we write about our technical skills that enable us to do the tasks we are generally paid to do. However, quite often we neglect to consider and include those otherwise referred to as “soft” skills that help the day-to-day function of our work outside of our technical focus.

In the past, these soft skills (time management, communication, problem solving, teamwork, etc.) have been undervalued by employees (and some employers) when it is these very skills that can become the catalyst in helping you transition and work in different industries.

For example, much of my role as a researcher involved managing projects, time management, writing reports or manuscripts, collaborating with researchers from other disciplines (credit to the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale Biophotonics), communication, teamwork, managing budgets and problem solving. The very same used as a Managing Director. However, it took some time for me to truly appreciate the significant value of these skills in my newfound position.

For context, allow me to take a step back and explain how I came to be in this role in the first place. After many years working in basic research, I found myself wanting to be able to do more with the tools I was working with and to translate what we learned at the lab bench to solving problems in the medical field (or other fields) which required solutions now.

This led myself and my co-founder Ben Pullen to enrol in the University of Adelaide Tech eChallenge, an entrepreneur course designed to take you through the processes of designing a tech-based idea, assessing its feasibility, and then developing a way to create it.

Throughout the course we met people from the Australian wool industry who approached us to discuss how we may use our medical research skills to solve agricultural problems. Once we understood what the problem was, we proposed to create a device that could capture data of wool fibres and provide a quality measure in real-time.

This was based on techniques that Ben and I were familiar with from our medical research training, and the rest of the required technical skills we knew we could fill by teaming up with others to test the feasibility of our idea.

After testing our idea in the lab and determining there was a real need for our device in the wool industry, we established Woven Optics in 2018. Ever since we have been building out team, sourcing funding and have continued our research and development to create the first 2 prototypes of our device.

I have used my medical research skills while managing Woven Optics’ R&D project to solve problems, collaborate and build relationships with our partners, write grants and reports, read relevant literature about wool fibres and testing, manage budgets, and communicate with wool growers about our technological solution.

Everything else I needed to know about running a business I am learning along the way and have an amazing team of business and entrepreneur mentors to guide me. Also, never underestimate the utility of the local start-up community and how much the right people are willing to help you.

The transition didn’t take place overnight and I spent at least 3 years working part-time in both medical research and business while I worked on Woven Optics. I’m not suggesting that a slow transition is best, but it worked out that way for me.

For other people, jumping in both feet works just as well. However, if you are thinking of switching industries/careers but don’t think you have the required abilities for the new role, I challenge you to think about which skills align between what you are currently doing (think both professionally and personally here), and what you want to do next.

You may be pleasantly surprised. Of course, these skills may not apply to every sector and technical knowledge is critical in many roles, but often it can be learned by on-the-job training.

The more people I meet, the more aware I become that my story is not unique. With funding becoming more and more rare in academia and many jobs in dying industries being phased out, people who do not wish to go back to study are relying heavily on their soft skills to move across industry sectors.

The goal in sharing my story is simply to highlight to whoever is reading this, that age and current technical knowledge are not barriers to exploring other career and business opportunities.

Article written by Vicky Staikopoulos, founder of Woven Optics