When I decided to pursue the idea I had for a better way to keep up with science, aka Scizzle (check it out, I’d love to get your feedback), I really didn’t know where to start. And so, like a good researcher….I went on Google. This is how I came by the lean startup approach – a methodology for increasing the success rate of developing innovative business and products. Steve Blank is the “godfather” of this approach and Eric Reis introduced this term in his blog, and later, in his book, and started the lean startup movement.
As a trained scientist, I found the lean startup approach easy to relate to as it talks about making hypotheses and testing them. Hey, that’s what I was doing for the past decade. While it’s not as easy to adjust from making science-related hypotheses to making business- and product-related hypotheses, I wondered what we, as scientists, can learn and implement from this approach.
Why should basic researchers adopt concepts of the lean startup? Well, considering the shrinking funding budgets and the increase competition for grants, being a lean mean science machine can give you an advantage. Today, we all need to do more with less, which is one of the biggest challenges when you startup, so why won’t we learn some lessons from startups?
Here are my 4 tips on how one can adopt and implement the lean startup concepts:
1. Have a Vision
The lean startup methodology tells startups to think and act like scientists: begin with a clear hypothesis and test it, letting your vision guide all your experiments. True, we are taught that our experiments should always be hypothesis-driven, but in reality we all stray away from time to time from our original hypothesis just for the sake of experimenting and the chance of revealing something new and exciting. It may lead to a great new discovery (hey, how many breakthroughs were made thanks to researchers making a mistake, right?) but sometimes we just lose focus and do experiments that are all over the place that get us nowhere. To stay on track think what would be the title of your paper if your hypothesis is valid and what do you need to show to prove it. Which brings us to the next point.
2. Think Big – Start Small
When you’re ready to put your vision to the test – stick to the pilot experiment. In the startup world they call it the MVP. Nope, it’s doesn’t stand for your most valuable protein but for minimum viable product. So if you’re a mean lean science machine – you don’t test for 56 cytokines, have 12-color FACS and 103 conditions in your pilot experiment. You stick to a small experiment that will provide you with a yes/ no answer on whether your educated guess is valid or not . Which also means you don’t need to buy a whole sleuth of reagents before you know the project is worth pursuing.
Since you’re all in different fields of science, let me use an example from the book. Are you familiar with Zappos? Do you think they started with a huge website like they have now? Nope, Nick Swinmurn, the founder of Zappos had the vision for a superior online shopping experience for shoes, but he wanted to know if there was demand for it. So he began with a tiny simple experiment – he went to shoes stores, took pictures of their inventory, put it online and promised the storeowner that if there’s a purchase, he’ll come back and buy the shoes at full price. By doing this small experiment, they got quantifiable answers and knew it was worth pursuing.
3. Know When to Pivot (or Persevere)
I’d say this has two aspects when it comes to researchers – a technical aspect and a personal aspect.
Let’s start with the technical: this is something we do all the time – we run experiments, troubleshoot when necessary, analyze our data and then either move forward to further validate our hypothesis, or when we get unexpected results – we pivot to a new hypothesis and start the cycle again.
But, being able to pivot in science, just as with startups, depends on planning the right experiments, and “listening” to our data is the golden key. Which brings me to the personal, or should I say emotional aspect: entrepreneurs can be delusional (and if you ever watched Shark Tank, you saw it), They believe in their idea and vision so much, they just ignore the reality, whether there is no real demand, or a non profitable business. Scientists can be that way too. After all, our project is sort of our baby. So don’t be the clueless entrepreneur eaten by the sharks – know when to let it go and move to a new project. As they say in the book, pivots take courage, and if you have it – it will be better for your publications record, work satisfaction and future success.
4. Get Your Creativity Going
Just like any company, to be competitive in today’s market – you need to be creative and innovative. When I was doing customer discovery (fancy word for talking with your potential users), I often heard from researchers that keeping up with the literature is a struggle and there was always a guilt feeling associated with it. When I dug deeper, I often heard that staying on top of your science makes you a better scientist. Admittedly, keeping up with new discoveries feeds our creativity and allow us to innovate in our own research, whether it’s a new technique, method used in a different system or a new enhancer that may be the master regulator in your favorite cell type.
I’m not an expert in the lean startup by any means, and I can’t guarantee that following it will get you a Nature paper and a tenured position. However, with the current discussions about the value of basic research and whether or not science is pulling its own weight, I believe it can’t hurt if we can re-connect to the entrepreneur within us to be more resourceful, efficient and ultimately successful.
As a side note, Steve Blank originally claimed that the life sciences were the only place lean startup wouldn’t work – only to eat his words a few years later after a successful “experiment” with the NSF. Blank now runs the Lean LaunchPad for life science and health care course in UCSF, teaching researchers how to use the lean methodology in biotech and medical devices. If you have an idea worth pursuing, I’d highly recommend reading Blank’s posts and taking the course.