Academic entrepreneurs betting on their science

updated on 15 March 2022

Sruthi Rambhatla         3 min


From lab to market

Many students try their luck at entrepreneurship during their degrees either out of passion for a painful problem that they are solving for or a way to test out their potential and pave their career. With no surprise, the biggest companies in the world have started out with successful entrepreneurs’ journeys in dorm rooms similar to the story of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard University and Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College. Although it is hard to tell what triggered their decisions, dedicating time for a special cause with complete conviction in one's self is never easy. The highlight of the decade now are successful entrepreneurs who started out as teachers, graduate, and postgraduate students, referred to as "academic entrepreneurs" who too took their positions in the business world.

Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, MIT economists and professors, founded the organization - Poverty Action lab (2003), popularly called J-PAL, along with Sendhil Mullainathan, a current professor of Computation and Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago. According to their mission: they set out to change the world's poverty, no less. Their work focuses on development economics. Their organization has carried out more than 1000 random trials in more than 80 countries. J-PAL says, programs verified in this way have been scaled up to reach over 400 million people around the world. Although its focus was initially on poor and emerging market economies, it is now promoting the social inclusion of immigrants. They were the co-winners of Alfred Nobel, and Duflo is the youngest person ever to receive one in the field of economic science. Their works have dramatically improved our ability to fight poverty in practice and their new approach to obtaining reliable answers noted Nobel awards.

Pablo Ducru, is an MIT-Shell energy fellow in nuclear science and computational engineering who also earned a master's in global affairs at Tsinghua University. Ducru along with his co-workers establish new results on scattering matrix pole expansions for wavenumbers in R-matrix theory. His solutions are quite fundamental to the design of new reactors, to nuclear imaging systems for tumor detection, or to the plutonium battery of a Mars rover. This helps scientists to reduce costs on high-fidelity nuclear simulations. His Schwarzman master thesis studies the role of aquaculture in our future global system. He received the 2018 MIT Water Innovation Prize and many others. He is planning his next years of life on perhaps to create a green fund that could underwrite zero-carbon projects, including nuclear ones.

Shiladitya Sengupta is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard School and co-director of the Centre for Engineered Therapeutics at the Brigham and Women's hospital. He invented the first layer-by-layer nanoparticle, termed a nano cell, which could be used to target different compartments of a tumor. His team focused on cancer cells plasticity and how they interact with immune cells to develop therapeutic interventions. Their recent invention was a Reporter Nanoparticle that allows a real-time imaging of an anti-cancer drug in action, including immunotherapy. He co-founded multiple startups some of which raised over $200M in public funding and have drugs in clinical trials. He has received the TR35 Innovator award from MIT Technology and is a recipient of the Era of Hope Scholar Award from the US department of defense.

The bottom of the story is

The barrier to entry in the startup world has never been lower—depending in the sector you are tackling, of course! The doors should be open for scientists even wider for their unique technical skills that they bring to the table. From Facebook to FedEx, the university is where some of the brilliant creators of the world's top companies met and started the business that made them financially independent (with new problems, haha). Yes, I do agree on the fact that COVID-19 stirred our peaceful lives and created some very unexpected tragedies. It has been particularly tough for educational institutions, given the prolonged uncertainty of the pandemic situation. But nevertheless, we need to look at the ways to tap into the entrepreneurial potential of the world keeping all the barriers aside to move towards an equitable future that we all are eager to live in.

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