Saturday, October 23, 2010

Not Invincible

Lately, I'm feeling somewhat less than invincible. Sure, my life is far more stable than it had been for a few years; yes, I am the head of a small company conducting interesting R&D; I lead a team of researchers to engage with ideas about questions that fire my passions; I'm well compensated for doing these things, I am autonomous and self-directed.

However, the fragility of it all weighs heavily on me right now. The firm was turned down for a follow-on contract on the second project we had been engaged in. That leaves us with just one funded project -- the one I started with by myself more than two years ago. The company has received nearly $400k in funds since I founded it in 2008; outstanding contracts account for nearly $600k more over the next year and a half. I've got seven on payroll; the expected income should keep them employed through at least part of 2012. But what then?

If this contract comes to an end, without anything in the pike, we close up shop and move on. Unlike a job, as an entrepreneur, it all rests squarely on my shoulders. If I don't source and land an income stream, it dries up. It's still pretty much in the basic research stage, nothing yet to sell other than the research itself, and the promise. We've got to deliver a mock-up demo in 4-6 months, and a prototype a year later. I'm confident we can deliver, but I wonder if that will be enough to produce a usable product and receive more funding, to keep the research and company alive.

The second project was not particularly well-defined on their end, but it provided us with six months of funding to engage with the problem. In the end, I feel good about the effort we made, the proposal we presented and the work it defines (enough so, that I plan to keep working on it, regardless of funding). The criticism came down to a few things which didn't really impinge on the quality of our work or the merit of our proposal. It was more a question of their needs and priorities, and disappointingly on their assessment of our ability to commercialize the results.

There's a big difference between academia and the world in which I now reside. The ability to commercialize and sell a product or service is always a factor. Innovation requires risk, but results are rewarded not risk (unless you work in financial services). Interdisciplinarity still haunts me; only now I must add the disciplines of business management and marketing to the pallette.

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