Lessons from Stanford: why science-led startup founders need business training to thrive

- January 10, 2020 3 MIN READ
A fresh perspective is vital to any business leader, but even more so for startup founders looking to find their feet as they grow their business.

For me, this opportunity came when I was lucky enough to receive a CSIRO-Stanford Australia Foundation Fellowship after taking part in the ON Accelerate5 Program in 2019. With a focus on getting my startup company, PPB Technology, investment-ready, and my background firmly rooted in the sciences, my main priority for this experience was to equip myself with a better rounded and more business-focused skill set.

I had only a few short weeks to select a course and apply to Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. I picked the Executive Program for Growing Companies (EPGC) as it offered a broad and deep curriculum. Starting your own business can be a huge move, and moving past the initial idea and through the early stages to success is often the hardest phase. Integral to survival is mastering broader business and strategic skills. Stanford reinforced these skills alongside the importance of partnerships with other companies. I came to understand the important role startups play in the wider business environment.

Nurturing partnerships is key to early growth

The EPGC itself, as the faculty members were keen to tell us, aimed to deliver the central learnings of an MBA in strategic management and innovation, in just 13 days. This was done through case studies, traditional classes, experiential group exercises and peer group learning sessions. My background is firmly in science, nine years of undergraduate biochemistry and neuroscience followed by 31 years as a professional research scientist to be exact.

Stephen Trowell, founder and MD of Parts Per Billion, and Melanie White, co-founder and director of Inova Medical, received $30,000 each towards studying at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California as the winners of the Stanford Australia Foundation – CSIRO Scholarship.

Stanford flipped my perspectives around. Indeed the more mundane topics like the statistics and strategies behind supply chain logistics or the psychology and maths of pricing were the most useful for me, as they were well outside my existing experience. In particular, Stanford opened my eyes to how partnerships with larger businesses can play a key role in enabling future growth whilst retaining a separate identity. Such business relationships can provide early stage startups with stability, revenue and the opportunity to refine their early product offerings and set themselves up for future success without losing autonomy.

Startups as an incubator for wider innovation

During the course, I was exposed to a great deal of wisdom and experience through the case studies and peer interactions. I was in a class of experienced private sector and not-for-profit managers. Many of my peers already had MBAs, in addition to an engineering or other technical qualification. Given how new I was to the business world, I felt I was getting even more value than most from the course, which has given me insights into how startups can lead the pack when it comes to innovation.

One major insight was learning how there is an underlying tension in any medium to large organisation, whether or not it is for profit, between the focus on refining processes and structures for maximum efficiency and innovating for future survival. We know this is hard because of the long roll call of companies, once household names, that lost out when the environment they were adapted for changed beyond recognition. Of course, there are counter examples of companies that were able to transform themselves and transition to new markets and ways of operating. My 90 course-mates and I studied what distinguished the companies that lasted from those that did not.

A key point is that, in their early stages, it is impossible to distinguish between innovations destined to be astronomical successes and those that will fail. Any risk averse organisation and its employees studiously avoid crazy ideas. But, in doing so, they limit themselves to incremental change and they miss out on opportunities to adopt transformational innovation.

With many larger businesses turning their eyes to how startups innovate, this aspect of the course reinforced why experimentation and change can make or break many startups as they grow. Through case studies on success stories like Facebook, Tesla, Amazon, Uber, and Netflix, Stanford showed me the unique ability of startups to be the engines of radical innovation in the broader business ecosystem.

Key lesson

My biggest takeaway from Stanford University’s Executive Program for Growing Companies was just how important business training is to startup founders, particularly those, like me, coming from a science-focused background.

Whether it’s the deeper understanding of the pitfalls of supply chain logistics, or the nurturing of business partnerships from day one, Stanford taught me how vital these aspects of business are to building a thriving startup.

With startups potentially being the engine room of innovation in the economy, business skills are a vital ingredient that can help those of us in startup land, and beyond, thrive rather than nose-dive.

* Stephen Trowell is founder & Managing Director of PPB Technology