Elizabeth Iorns is cofounder and CEO of Science Exchange, a company I once described as the “Airbnb of Weird Science” for the way it allows scientists to outsource elements of their lab work—even in labs as far afield as outer space. Iorns was recently granted the 2012 Kauffman Foundation Emerging Postdoctoral Entrepreneur Award. With PhDs outnumbering academic faculty positions by a factor of 10 or so, the Kauffman Foundation thought it wise to reward a scientist who had blazed her own trail as an entrepreneur. But as Iorns tells Fast Company, job scarcity is hardly the only reason to ditch academia for a career as an entrepreneur.
FAST COMPANY: What’s wrong with how science happens today?
ELIZABETH IORNS: One thing that’s really interesting about science now is that it’s funded in a way that is quite old-fashioned. Large grants go to a single investigator, and that guy dispenses it as he sees fit, buying equipment, training students how to use it, and so on. It’s very inefficient. You could spend six months learning to do one technique, do it once for a particular experiment, and then move on and never use that technique again. It would make more sense if people collaborated efficiently, each using their specialized expertise.
This is a concept that has existed in economics for hundreds of years.
I know. Science has not evolved to that stage yet.
But scientists are supposed to be the smart ones!
I know, it’s sad. The more I move away from universities, I understand that universities are supposed to be centers for innovation, but they’re actually really not. When you see all the exciting things going on in Silicon Valley, these incredibly intelligent people really trying to change the world, they’re not the people you find at universities. And it’s sad, and probably controversial to say that, having been at an academic institution, but I think universities have to think really hard about their role in society now. There are a lot of things they do that inhibit innovation.
I thought academia was where pure science happened.
When you look at it, about 70% of research at academic institutions cannot be reproduced. The academic setting applies incentives that don’t encourage reproducible research. It’s all about the latest and greatest controversial new idea, so people don’t want to do studies that replicate others’ work.
And reproducing results is an essential part of good science. There was that study a few years back that suggested arsenic could be the basis of a life form...
That was shown not to be true. No bacteria uses arsenic as an alternative form for synthesizing DNA.
So academia rewards people who fancy themselves the next Einstein, but doesn’t reward those doing the real grunt work of science.
There are good things about academic research as well. But the public thinks of academic researchers as doing things for the good of the world, and that pharma are the evil ones trying to make money. Actually, when you look at it, the incentive systems are skewed towards industry producing high-quality research. There are problems in industry as well, but they actually have to make sure the science they do is right, because they have to produce a product that actually works, or they won’t be successful. Academic research is about producing publications to get the next grant, and there’s no real requirement to be right.
If you were suddenly given czar-like powers over how science is done today, what are the major problems you’d hack?
There are so many things that could be improved, and will be improved—it’s a very positive time to be involved in the startup community helping science move forward. First of all, I would obviously want to see increased specialization and collaboration; that’s the Science Exchange model. Second, I would like to see all of the data being produced documented every day, almost like an open-source software project. Who knows what data is selectively chosen to be published? People pick and choose the data that matches the story they want to sell, and there’s a whole bunch of negative data that’s unpublished, so the true story is not apparent. As much automation of data collection as possible is also really important. They do this a lot in industry, basically collect and store raw data directly from machines, but we don’t do it so much in academic research. The other thing that would be really good would be to put some of the standards used in industry into effect in academic research. A lot of these things are just common sense, things that we should do in academia but don’t: Make sure your pipettes are calibrated, make sure you record the batch of reagent you’re using.
Should more scientists be putting up posters of Steve Jobs, rather than Einstein? How can they be encouraged to take the plunge you took?
A lot of scientists don’t really know much about startups. They definitely get very excited about the idea, and share this idealism about changing the world, but a lot of the time they just don’t know how to start. “I don’t even know where to begin.” But scientists can make great entrepreneurs because they possess the skills required to be successful. The single biggest factor that determines startup founders’ success is perseverance, and scientists have that in bucketloads. Everyone knows that getting a PhD is a test in perseverance.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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