Last month I had the good fortune of attending a seminar given by Dr. Shiva Amiri on entrepreneurship and opportunities at the Ontario Brain Institute (OBI).  Dr. Amiri is the Manager of Informatics and Analytics at OBI and, among many other responsibilities, leads the development and implementation of Brain-CODE – a large-scale informatics platform for multidimensional data collected from patients with brain disorders. If that wasn’t enough to wrap your brain around, Dr. Amiri is also President and CEO of Modecular Inc – a start-up focused on developing computational methodologies for screening drug candidates in order to shave away precious time and costs from the drug discovery process.  If you’re like me, at this point you’re wondering how Dr. Amiri finds the time to sleep!  You’re likely also wondering how she got to be where she is today and if she has any particular tips for would-be life science entrepreneurs.  In that case, you’re in luck.  Dr. Amiri has graciously agreed to let me summarize the important points of her talk in this article.  But first, let me briefly review Dr. Amiri’s career progression to date.

Dr. Amiri began her postsecondary education here at the University of Toronto in 1999. With tremendous foresight, she recognized that the future of the life sciences was tied to greater integration of computational technologies.  She decided to pursue her Bachelors’ degree majoring in both Human Biology and Computer Science.  She began her research career working as a Bioinformatics Software Developer in a lab at the Banting and Best Institute of Medical Research.  There she learned the importance of having smart people around you who will also have your back.  One such person, a fellow lab member, suggested that she look into the Structural Bioinformatics and Computational Biochemistry program offered in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Oxford. Four years later, Dr. Amiri graduated with a doctoral thesis entitled “Computational studies and molecular dynamics simulations of ligand-gated ion channels” and the data for what would eventually be three first-author publications.  Realizing that her competitive advantages were better utilized outside of academia, Dr. Amiri returned to Toronto to take a position as a Team Lead in the Science and Innovation Network of the British Consulate General.  At the same time, she began planting the seeds of her start-up company with some post-doctoral fellows from her old lab at Oxford.  Her work for the British Consulate General allowed her to take a macro view of the scientific innovation going on in Canada, the US and the UK.  She networked extensively while surveying the North American landscape for scientific opportunities to conceive and coordinate international collaborations for cutting-edge life science projects.  Finally in late 2011, Dr. Amiri took on a position at the recently founded Ontario Brain Institute and also began to spend more time pushing her start-up company forward.

Dr. Amiri has clearly had both an eventful and fruitful career thus far.  Though the specifics are inimitable, there are many core aspects of career development that she wants to pass on to aspiring entrpreneurs.  For ease of understanding, I’ve laid them out as individual points, though the overlap between ideas is likely obvious.

  • See “entrepreneurship” as an option: Entrepreneurship is just a word.  Don’t be taken aback by it and start to realize that almost anyone has the potential to become an entrepreneur.
  • Hang out with smart people who have your back: Your network is key.  Leverage those smart people around you that want to see you succeed.  When building your network, you’ll often have to reach out to people you’ve never met and ask to chat over a coffee.  BE GRACIOUS!  Always offer to buy their coffee and never directly criticize them during your conversation.
  • Improve your communication: This may seem obvious and clichéd but it is still a highly undervalued skill that doesn’t necessarily come naturally.  Before reaching out to build your network, you need to be skilled at having effective conversations: plan 2-3 points you want to discuss, notify the individual of these points before meeting, and make sure you’re already capable of keeping the conversation flowing and yet focused.
  • Think exponentially: Become the next Elon Musk. Don’t take no for an answer.  Don’t be stubborn, but realize that the process will be hard and many people will try to dissuade you from pursuing it for that reason.  Listen to those aforementioned smart people around you that want you to succeed.  If those people are raising points about potential issues with your idea, take the time to evaluate the issues and be able to formulate appropriate solutions and responses before moving forward.
  • Be willing to fail:  Truly innovative ideas often require numerous factors to line up in order to be realized.  Regardless of how ingenious the idea or how strong the business plan, be aware that luck is always a part of the game.  Moreover, you need to enjoy the process and take every opportunity to learn from it.
  • Get shit done: When you finally start your company, you’ll need to be willing to hustle hard to make it work.  Don’t be intimidated by the various business processes involved in creating a new company.  It will take a lot of time and effort to learn various aspects, but they are all possible to figure out.  You’ll have to be willing to travel to exploit opportunities for funding, collaborations or even sourcing manufacturers.
  • Lay the runway: Always remember DROOM: Don’t Run Out Of Money!  Make sure you have a strategic financial plan and try your best to execute accordingly.  You’ll need to be aware of all the possible funding opportunities out there.  Particularly, think about the federal and provincial programs out there which may be able to help you (eg. Ontario Centres of Excellence, MaRS Innovation, NSERC/CIHR, Ontario Brain Institute)

Excellent points for any potential entrepreneur to keep in mind.  With regards to the last one, OBI has their own Entrepreneurs Program (http://www.braininstitute.ca/obi-entrepreneurs-program) to help fund and establish potential neuroscience-related start-up companies.  The application process involves answering 5 questions and making a 2 min video about your technology.  Of the roughly 35 annual applicants, around 15 are interviewed over the phone and the top 10 make a 5 min Dragon’s Den style pitch to a selection committee.  The applications are due around April, so be sure to take a look at their website and keep your eye out for it.

Even if you don’t have an amazing idea for a business, Dr. Amiri’s advice likely still resonates with you.  The truth is that the majority of her advice can be applied by individuals graduating soon and begininning their career.  Networking, communication skills, exponential thinking and just getting shit done!  Those are definitely concepts that all of us should be keeping in mind.