Professor Founder: An academic shares 6 tips on making the leap from uni to startup

- August 24, 2021 3 MIN READ
superman idea
Photo: AdobeStock
Australia is a hotbed for start-up innovation, with investments of $3.4 billion over the past financial year, a new record according to figures from KPMG.

More than four in five start-up founders in Australia are university graduates. Universities here have created and fostered an environment that encourages students to foray into the start-up economy, creating several programs to foster talent.

The Founders Program is the University of New South Wales’ platform to embed entrepreneurship on campus to support students, staff, and alumni to build entrepreneurship skills, and found and grow real companies.

The University of Queensland’s Ventures runs its ilab Accelerator for three months each year, with $10,000 equity-free funding to each team. The program includes workshops, mentoring, an entrepreneur in residence, partner incentives, desk space, and introductions to investors.

Incubate is an award-winning start-up program at the University of Sydney, which funds students, alumni, and researchers to launch high-potential start-ups through an accelerator.

Many of these university graduates, faculty, and alumni have made a seamless transition from academia to working in the business world and industry.


My journey from academia to industry

I began the transition from academic research to the world of commercialisation over four years ago.

I was originally working on my Ph.D. in the field of Neuroimmunopharmacology at the University of Adelaide researching the relationship between pain medication and how these drugs interact with our body’s immune system, with a goal of developing medication to prevent the nasty side effects associated with chronic use.

Jacob Thomas

Jacob Thomas

I then moved to the University’s ARC Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) as a Post-Doctoral Researcher where I continued my research on pain and pain medication, but with a focus on utilising new technologies developed within the CNBP. The CNBP is a $40 million funded research centre that brings together physicists, chemists, and biologists focused on building next-generation light-based measuring tools operating at the cellular and molecular levels.

Working at CNBP gave me an in-depth insight into how light could be delivered, emitted, absorbed, reflected, or modified by biology. With this knowledge, I was able to help transition a technology developed for detecting cancerous tissue into a device that measures the intramuscular fat (IMF) of red meat.

Part of my role as an Optical Engineer at MEQ Probe is to continue to iterate and improve the technology and its capabilities. MEQ Probe is an agtech start-up that uses spectral analysis to determine the IMF percentage and the eating quality of meat. Its technology was developed in partnership with CNBP.

I was introduced to Andrew Grant and Remo Carbone – the co-founders of MEQ Probe – through the CNBP in January 2017 to help capture data on one of the projects that they had begun. This association quickly transitioned into project management of three of the start-ups, where I designed, ran the analysis of trials, and built the devices.

In the beginning, I had to balance my academic work and responsibilities with the fast-paced and demanding nature that is typical of a start-up. As the companies grew and evolved, my involvement in them gathered pace as well. In 2020, I decided to join MEQ Probe full-time.


Tips for making the transition

  1. Leverage your abilities and strengths

Research work gives you a wider range of skills than pure academic knowledge. It includes problem solving, teamwork, organisational skills – all vital in the business world.


  1. Surround yourself with people smarter than you are

It’s always motivating to be around people who are driven and inspired, and furthering knowledge. The more great minds come together, the more innovation results.


  1. Cultivate the mindset of a lifelong learner; make mistakes and learn from them

Mistakes are what lead to better methods and new ideas. Learning can’t stop at graduation, particularly in the digital era of new technologies and discoveries taking place all the time. Your degree is only the start of your life’s learning.


  1. Find a mentor to guide you

Having a mentor can make a huge difference as you navigate your own career path. And eventually you can pay it forward by mentoring others.


  1. Find the right transition point to make the move 

By choosing the right business to move into, you will not only find a vocation that you enjoy, but also something that has a higher purpose and makes a positive contribution to the community.


  1. Be open to possibilities

Change is the only constant in life, said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. I have stayed true to this saying right from moving from academia to a start-up to moving my family to Gundagai, where the MEQ Probe headquarters are situated. One has to be open to new possibilities and recognise opportunities when they present themselves.


Academia and innovation are a natural fit. Both are about striving to further knowledge and generating ideas and solutions that can further human progress. Thanks to support from universities and industry, and increasing links and collaboration between them, the transition from academia to business is no longer a road less travelled.


  • Jacob Thomas is Optical Engineering Lead at MEQ Probe