Making Science Your Business: How One Researcher Became a CEO

July 12, 2016

While growing up, Crystal Icenhour worked in her family's business, a large truck repair shop. She did everything from helping her mother with accounting to assisting her father with inventory and mopping the floors. Fast forward to today-after a blur of high-quality education (she finished her Ph.D. in a jaw-dropping four years) and starting a family-Crystal is CEO at Aperiomics.

Crystal studied biology as an undergrad and earned her doctorate at the University of Cincinnati in pathobiology and molecular medicine. She spent four years doing a postdoc at the Mayo Clinic and at Duke University. While she enjoyed fostering her scientific skills, she was searching for a career path that had more of a direct impact on the world. "I spent a lot of time with my postdoc mentor talking about my career path, and he gave me good insight into the world of academia-what it was and what it wasn't," Crystal says. "I began to see some of the politics and inertia that happen in academia. And because I'm a very impatient person, I felt like it wasn't a good fit for my personality." This feeling of where to go next is common among postdocs and students. So Crystal decided to finish her postdoc and look for new opportunities.  

A networking lunch brought about a life-changing event: her friend knew a professor at the University of Virginia with a great idea and a year's worth of funding from NIH who was looking for someone to make his idea into reality. Crystal's friend wasn't interested, but Crystal certainly was.

She spent the next year working nights and weekends to get Phthisis Diagnostics off the ground. "We had one year of funding. No lab, no bank account, (and) nothing else," Crystal remembers. Although that year was lonely and challenging at times, she could see the light at the end of the tunnel. "I don't believe in failure, and I don't believe in regrets," Crystal says. "I've been this way my whole life. It was never an option in my head that this company wasn't going to succeed." Crystal worked very hard that year, and Phthisis Diagnostics, which began as an idea with a grant, was acquired seven years later by a bigger company. Crystal then went on to establish her own company, Icenhour Biotech, and is now cofounder and CEO of Aperiomics.

Working for a business-or starting your own-requires a thick skin and an iron stomach. "You have to be extremely risk-tolerant," Crystal advises. "It takes quite a bit of guts. If you can't stand the thought of losing time [or] money or possibly failing, this is not for you."

For people who want to learn more about entrepreneurship there are many opportunities, from working in industry to starting your own company like Crystal did, or taking smaller steps to introduce yourself to the world of business. 

Groups like the Kauffman Foundation run "entrepreneur boot camps," which translates the vocabulary and inner workings of the business world for people who have spent a good chunk of their lives in labs. Icenhour is one of the instructors for the course, which covers topics like company lifecycles, regulatory considerations, and business planning.

"Whether it's a course, doing an internship somewhere, or going to networking events or seminars at business schools, scientists need to actually step out of the lab and into the world of business and see how they feel about it," Crystal says. "I'm a firm believer that you don't know what you're good at until you try it." So step out of your comfort zone and try something new!