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Cornell University


Monday, May 22, 2017
Chemist-Inventor-Entrepreneur Glenn Prestwich shares career advice

From the lab of Jerrold Meinwold in the Department of Chemistry, alumnus Glenn Prestwich went on to reinvent himself several times over, first turning down an offer to teach mathematics in Kabul, Afghanistan. As a young boy, he initially wanted to be an astrophysicist, then an embryologist, then perhaps a mathematician. He never predicted that after 100 publications in chemistry he would go on to lead a Center for Biotechnology, then establish a Center of Excellence in Utah and develop a faculty entrepreneur scholar program, starting a company only 5 months later.

He did all that and more, without ever taking a formal course in entrepreneurship, materials science, or finance. Instead, he constantly thought about doing something useful, about marketing. Not selling himself, as scientists do to their publishers, granting agencies, and their students. "Marketing is more about solving some customer's problem," he quipped. "Don't be sold on what someone else wants you to do." Instead, his advice is to examine what is your own unmet need. No innovation happens unless there is failure, which causes some sort of pain--a tension, an unmet need--that begs a solution, and once you innovate the new solution, there will be additional questions that result in additional failures and the circle continues.

Scientists and entrepreneurs are not really all that different. "Fail early, fail cheap, and fail often is what businesses do; scientists simply call this 'testing a hypothesis'." In his experience working with faculty, he realized that the entrepreneurial scalability is reached via grad students who are more likely to have the innovations, the time, risk profile, and passion, without the distractions of being on committees and chairing sections.

His bottom line in a few words? "Mind open. Field broad." What are the characteristics of an entrepreneur? First of all, it's not a profession, but rather a way of thinking and acting. A comfort with calculated risk, perseverance, and most critically, passion. An ability to maintain focus amidst chaos.

Prestwich ascribes to the Yogi Berra philosophy of 'when you come to a fork in the road, take it', and strongly relied on his need for breadth of life to do an amazing job in the lab and to keep his passion for his thesis project. Thereafter, he followed many paths simultaneously (for 3, 6, 16 years) until they grew dry, moving on to try new things each time, all while doing others important to him like singing, learning to fly and raising a family. "Don't be afraid, try stuff, and if it doesn't work, drop it and try something else."

A word about networking: "Don't try to monetize it too soon," but rather spend time sharing. Ask people how they got to where they are in their careers. Build relationships until you know what motivates others so you understand their pain points. Talk about yourself in various scenarios at career fairs, speaking with potential employers, and follow up with them shortly thereafter. A note 2, 4 or 6 months later, while not being a pest, keeps you on their radar for potential new opportunities they hadn't foreseen when they met you. Take a chance and put yourself out there. In biological language, try to "maintain pluripotency and avoid premature differentiation." 

Most of all, remember the biggest illusion of grad school is that is only about doing your thesis, that it's enough. "Take advantage of being at Cornell!"

We asked attendees what is the most important knowledge they gained. See their feedback below:

"Hearing about his experience jumping to different fields when no more opportunities were available and knowing when to move on to the next area/project/field." 

"Understanding of more general entrepreneurial mindsets to succeed in science outside of academia."

"Entrepreneurial growth."