Being a scientist in the startup world


Understanding the role of scientists in a business setting is essential to effectively leading and growing research-driven startups. Learn how to strike a balance between innovation and practicality, establish collaborative research teams, and drive startup success—whether you have a scientific background or not.
As a scientist and startup founder, I've often been asked about the role of research in the business world. What does it mean to be a scientist in a company? How does a scientist's perspective influence their approach to leadership and innovation? 

The unique thing about being a scientist founder is that because innovation is key to the way you think, and it becomes key to the way you approach business, too. Because of this, every scientist-led startup is going to be special. I will share my experience as the founder of Pinecone, a vector database for AI applications — but as you go down the path of building your own research-driven startup, you may find it looks quite different. 

In this post, I'll share my thoughts on what it means to be a scientist in a company, and draw on my experiences building a company that combines cutting-edge research with practical product application.

The definition of a startup scientist

In the startup world, there's no single, universally accepted definition of a scientist. In my opinion, a true scientist in a company is someone who would otherwise be a professor conducting their own research.

In academia, a scientist's primary responsibilities often include teaching, writing grants and serving on committees, and research is their core focus. In contrast, a scientist in a company conducts research that is just as valuable, deep and important as their academic peers, but their day-to-day responsibilities involve running a software company rather than a university.

In my experience, the most effective scientists in the startup world spend about 30% of their time on research and 70% on running the company. They have their own deep research agendas and expertise in specific fields, but they also play a crucial role in driving the company forward.

Practically speaking, there are three layers to a scientist's contribution to a startup:

  • Bringing technical soundness to projects: Scientists in startups often have strong backgrounds in computer science, algorithms, and/or math, so they can tackle complex problems and ensure that the company's work is built on a solid technical foundation.
  • Bringing external knowledge into the company: Scientists keep up with the latest research in their fields and can bring valuable insights from papers and studies into the company. They can translate this knowledge into practical applications and help guide product decisions. I look for scientists who can tell product management, “Here’s an idea from a paper I read, and here’s how we can use it.”
  • Driving innovation: Scientists in startups often work on problems that require combining and synthesizing existing knowledge in novel ways. Work that might not be groundbreaking enough for academic publication might still be incredibly valuable for the company, and it pushes the boundaries of what’s possible.

Ultimately, a startup scientist is someone who is deeply passionate about their research and excited about the opportunity to apply it in a business environment. They bring a unique blend of technical expertise and practical problem-solving skills to the table.

How being a scientist CEO can inform your research

The scientists you hire will play a significant role in shaping your early team and setting the tone for the company's research efforts. If you are a scientist founder, you’ll likely be inclined to bring people on board who share your passion for deep, challenging problems and your desire to push the boundaries of what's possible.

As a scientist, I tend to think about problems abstractly, looking for commonalities and patterns. I often resist accepting the status quo. This mindset aligns well with the role of a founder, as we're often trying to do things that have never been done before and disrupt existing ways of thinking.

I find myself constantly questioning assumptions and trying to rethink business problems. This can be incredibly powerful and it can help me discover new, innovative solutions — but keep in mind that sometimes common wisdom exists for a reason, and reinventing the wheel may not always be the best use of your energy.

While the desire to innovate and disrupt is natural for a scientist founder, balance it with a degree of pragmatism. Not every aspect of the business needs to be perfect or groundbreaking — sometimes, a solution that's 85% good is sufficient, and it's better to focus your energy on the areas where innovation can have the greatest impact. Also, some things simply aren’t worth reinventing. 

Can a non-scientist CEO effectively build a research function?

I'm often asked whether it's possible for a CEO without a scientific background to successfully lead and manage a research function within their company. The short answer is yes, but it requires finding the right person or people to help you build and guide that team.

If you're a non-scientist CEO looking to build a research organization, the key is to find someone you can trust to hire and manage the research team. This could be a scientist who has the ability to attract and lead other talented researchers, or a research manager with a proven track record of building effective teams.

Keep in mind that having just a single scientist in a company is rarely effective. In the same way that a lone engineer would struggle in a media company, and a single salesperson might feel out of place in an engineering-heavy startup, a solo scientist is likely to feel isolated and unsupported. Research thrives on collaboration and shared expertise, so it's crucial to build a team, even if it starts small with just two or three people.

If you're not a scientist yourself and you find it challenging to assess the quality or relevance of the research being done, build a strong, trusting relationship with your research leader. You should feel comfortable sitting down with them and saying, “Explain this to me like I’m five.”

Your research leader should be able to clearly articulate how their research ties into the company's goals and timelines. They should be able to tell you whether a particular project is likely to have an impact in two weeks, two months or two years (or maybe never). Having this level of open, honest communication is crucial for ensuring your research function is aligned with the overall direction of the company.

Beyond finding the right research leader, non-scientist CEOs should also create a culture of collaboration and communication between the research team and the rest of the company. Researchers shouldn't be siloed off in a separate department — they should be integrated into the broader organization and encouraged to work closely with other teams.

With the right mindset and approach, any CEO can successfully lead and manage a research function — regardless of their scientific background.

The startup scientist’s roadmap to success

Being a scientist in the startup world requires a unique blend of deep technical expertise, practical problem-solving skills and a passion for pushing the boundaries of what's possible. Whether you're a scientist founder or a non-scientist CEO looking to build a research function, you can achieve your goals by understanding the role of scientists in business and how to effectively lead and manage research.

Here are the main things to keep in mind about scientists in the startup world:
  • Scientists in startups balance independent research with a focus on driving the company forward.
  • Scientist founders bring a unique perspective that can help disrupt the status quo and drive innovation.
  • Balancing innovation with pragmatism is key for scientist founders.
  • Non-scientist CEOs can effectively run research teams by finding scientific leaders and building a culture of collaboration.
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