If you're building or considering founding a company in the industries demanding intricate technologies – think Deep Tech, Space Tech, Bio Tech, or groundbreaking hardware – the involvement of scientists is non-negotiable. It's ideal to onboard such experts within your in-house team.
However, even if circumstances don't allow for this, you'll still need to engage, consult, and collaborate with external top-tier specialists. This necessitates establishing a shared understanding with the research and development team, so-called R&D.
In this relationship, there's a common problem: development and business have completely different mindsets and patterns of thought. R&D frequently involves the embrace of more contemplative processes, resulting in the pursuit of scientific discoveries and the fulfillment of scientific curiosity.
In contrast, behind every business in such fields, there lies the idea of bringing value to humanity through the creation of great products as soon as possible, which, if executed correctly, will consequently lead to an increase in the company's revenue and capitalization.
As a founder of a Deep Tech startup with an in-house team of 30+ researchers and developers, I will share my advice for the founders to simplify yet preserve the quality of connection between these different parts of a company.
Create a Mutually Beneficial Partnership From the Outset
Imagine this situation: product managers desiring to expedite the development of the final product present unrealistic requirements to the R&D, which might border on the unattainable.
Worse yet, instances arise where business executives seek solutions that are ultimately unfeasible within the laws of physics. All of this may ultimately lead to a situation where, even if these demands are achievable, the development team might be hesitant due to personal preferences or a perception of incongruity.
To effectively navigate these complexities, the key is to establish a partnership that is not only perceived by leaders but is experienced by every team member. This partnership should be founded on principles of equality, mutual respect, and a deep recognition that the responsibilities of your colleagues in research, as well as those engaged in business-related tasks, are equally significant to the overall mission.
In the case of the company’s leadership, the uncomplicated method to realize this vision is by offering an even-handed share of ownership to each stakeholder, both from the business and science side. In our case, the shares of the co-founders responsible for both sides are completely equal.
In the case of each other representative of the team, it is the task of founders to address both short-term and long-term motivations to prove that reaching the collective goal will be more beneficial for them than individual justifications. It's essential to sustain their confidence in your product and vision, which can be only achieved with regular meetings and open communication.
The role of the founder is to continuously prove to employees that what you're doing is not just “cool” but also meaningful, something that truly matters to people. In other words, follow the Y Combinator's famous mantra and show how you
For long-term motivation, the company should offer an honest and transparent system of options. While this may primarily come into play during a company sale or IPO, each employee, starting from junior positions to the C-levels, should know that they're not just contributing to something great for the sake of history.
In contrast, the whole team will directly benefit from it if they succeed in creating something extraordinary. This combination of short-term enthusiasm and long-term rewards is the formula that will keep our team engaged, driven, and inspired.
Articulate a Clear Product Vision for the Future
Another significant danger when working with scientists lies when they operate solely within their academic framework. This can potentially lead to stagnation characterized by the constant pursuit of numerous research topics but the lack of progress toward creating a specific product.
To address this, the business team needs to create a solid step-by-step plan for reaching the final product and decomposing each step. To make it possible, a systematic approach is essential:
Generate and refine the idea of the final product. Ask yourself clear questions to catalog all creative fantasies of what your product is like:
How is the future altered with your product in existence?
How does it make people’s lives easier?
What are its use cases, functions, and features?
How is it operated?
The best approach to do it is when ideas organically emerge from specific demands and challenges, and the inspiration can be found in a variety of sources, starting from research papers and all the way through the Netflix series.
Align your ideas to market needs. The next essential step of decomposing the product is filtering your ideas through the lens of market analysis together, you will experience product managers and future target audiences. They should help you ascertain whether your bright ideas are in demand and assess their potential market volume. Moreover, it’s vital to determine whether your innovation aims for near-term realism or envisions a role in a global future landscape.
Implement timelines and priority of the development together with the R&D team. At this point, the development team should state which of the functions needed for the product are the most realistic in terms of development.
Of course, some startups explicitly state their aspiration to change the world in the far future, but if you want to build a product from a closer perspective, you should rank each idea in terms of being possible at this point of technical development.
This may even lead to your dream product being divided into several intermediate products that are all potentially sellable and reachable in the near future.
This systematic progression culminates in a thoroughly structured product roadmapsegmented into numerous short time intervals, each culminating in a predicted outcome. It should encompass key milestones, enabling you to evaluate each result within a decent amount of time, suitable both for the speed of your R&D process and your business needs.
This approach was formulated by American Investor Ray Dalio in his book “Principles’. His methodology encapsulates five essential steps:
Defining clear goals
Confronting and addressing problems
Uncovering root causes
Crafting detailed plans
Executing these plans diligently for effective decision-making and goal achievement.
This process, performed at least monthly, combined with regular assessment and updating your goals on a basic level, ensures that innovation remains an ongoing endeavor.
Empower Your Team
Once your strategic objectives and pathways are clear, the most prudent approach is to facilitate individual team members' dedicated focus. The founder plays a pivotal role as an executive leader, wielding both the force of determination and the authority needed to guide the team toward necessary actions.
However, it's vital to avoid excessive pressure or becoming overly persistent. A poignant lesson arises from Steve Jobs' interactions with Steve Wozniak, who was too suppressive towards the great engineer, which led to the latter leaving the company. To not let anything like this happen to you:
Create an atmosphere where the brilliance of each R&D team member is acknowledged, and their valuable expertise is supported by time, authority, and respect. To start, it's essential to create an optimal working environment, such as having an office located conveniently for the scientists, a well-equipped laboratory, and a higher salary.
In our case, our office is literally a minute away from the university with which we collaborate, which provides easy access to the necessary resources and materials. Moreover, it's equally important to ensure that R&D representatives receive genuine recognition and rewards for their hard work.
Founders of Deep Techs should actively celebrate and support brilliant ideas and achievements. This means facilitating patent applications where all the participants are mentioned fairly and providing opportunities for scientists to showcase their ideas at prestigious conferences and events.
It's all about fostering an environment where innovation and dedication are not only acknowledged but also encouraged.
Safeguard the R&D team from all external disruptions. The groundbreaking development process can be easily stifled by someone else’s obsession with efficiency, accountability, and immediate returns. So, to provide a nurturing environment for the breakthrough, you should make sure that they don’t have to bother about anything but their research. This includes operational, legal, and business matters, as well as pressure from the outside world, such as the market, your own investors, your business team, and sometimes even yourself.
Help business team members to gain respect in the eyes of the researchers. Founders should make persistent daily efforts to bridge the gap between the worlds of business and science by regularly and equally highlighting the accomplishments of all teams. One effective way to achieve this is by organizing a monthly one-hour meeting, so-called “Townhalls.”
During these gatherings, representatives from both the R&D and business teams can share their achievements from the past month. This approach not only emphasizes the progress made by each team but also illustrates how their collective efforts drive the company toward its ultimate goal.
Overall, it’s ideal to reach a consensus that all team members are professionals whose responsibilities impact the company’s success as significantly as research and development.
By embracing these principles, you will cultivate a harmonious atmosphere for advancing the product that will become a scientific milestone.