Karn Manhas on the difference between science and business – Fast Company

My basement back in 2009 was a sight to behold. There were beakers, bottles, flasks, and pipettes everywhere, compounds with serious-looking labels, and dozens of tubes and spray bottles.

Ill admit it looked suspiciousenough so that when the utility guy came over one day he winked and asked me to hit him up with some of whatever I was cooking. But if it was drugs he was after, I could only offer drugs for bugs.

For months, Id been working on an all-natural way to control bed bugs without using harmful synthetic chemicals. When I hit on a successful formula I knew I had something special, but after I set off to secure patents and incorporate the business a big question loomed: Now what?

Having a background in science was key in the inquiry, but I quickly realized that my degree in genetics and biotechnology didnt exactly equip me with the skills to successfully bring it to market. In fact, Id even say I had to unlearn a few aspects of my scientific training in order to become an entrepreneur.

My passion for science stemmed from curiosity about the world. After all, the role of scientists is to ask questionslots of themwithout necessarily having an answer or a destination in mind. Following a path of inquiry wherever it leads has given us some of the most important discoveries of our time; everything from insulin to x-rays, we owe to a scientific process that essentially asks, What happens if I do this?

In getting my company off the ground, however, I learned that entrepreneurs have to go about things from the other directionasking instead, How do we make this happen? Rather than focusing on questions, its about focusing on answers, assuming solutions are out there, and working to find them.

You have to trust youll find the answers as you go, not hold yourself back until you think youve got every potential problem figured out.

You have to trust youll find the answers as you go, not hold yourself back until you think youve got every potential problem figured out. The more I let go of my scientists tendency to continually ask what if, the more I found that the concrete how tos began to reveal themselves.

Though Im proud of my senior thesis in college, Ill concede that A Characterization of Genetic Mutations Among Patients Expressing Non-Phenylketonuria Hyperphenylalaninaemia (non-PKU HPA) Symptoms in Rural Quebec Populations may not exactly be a compelling read for the general public. The work of scientists is extremely important, but the scope can sometimes be very narrow. Often, until much research has been accumulated, there can be a gap in communicating why the research and discoveries are important or how they fit into the big picture in a way thats accessible. In short, as scientists, we are often not very good at telling stories.

Storytelling isnt a new business concept, but its easily overlooked when youve spent your days focusing on the measurable details of studies, and youre up to your eyeballs in the specifics of granular data and charts. In contrast, to get anywhere as a business, you need buy-in from consumers, investors, even your own employees. That means transcending the narrow confines of data and hypothesis and telling your story in a way that connects with people on a personal and emotional level. Also key: clearly and quickly communicating what the problem is that youre solving, and what difference you are making to people and the world.

This was critical as we started to scale Terramera and grow from just making bug spray to applying our technology to agriculture and the food we eat. Motivating the team, investors, and consumers required coming up with a cohesive narrative.

Today, the kind of research and experimentation we do hasnt necessarily changed. But how we connect and communicate has progressively gotten betterand that makes all the difference. Were not just investigating more efficient and sustainable crop protection, pest and disease control, or the uptake of molecules at the cellular level. Were working to reduce the global use of synthetic chemical pesticides by 80% and increase farm productivity by 20%. We have the technology to do it, and fixating on the end state is key to decision-making, strategy, and scaling to see that into reality.

We hear so much today about millennials and Gen Z wanting to build meaningful careers with real purpose, be that through nonprofits, the arts, academia, or research organizations. Those are perfectly noble pursuits. But Id add to that list applying technology and starting or working in a mission-driven business, especially if impact and scale are priorities.

I could have spent my life in a lab incrementally adding to humanitys collective knowledge, which is critical and important work. But my passion is to challenge conventions and team up with others who want to find solutions for some of the biggest challenges of our time. In the end, the most effective way I could see to do that was through entrepreneurship.

The fact is, solutions are only meaningful and maximally impactful if they are accessible, scalable, and economically sustainable. And here, the levers of capitalism can help. Ive learned this firsthand as Ive grown my business. To make good on our story, we need to succeed as a business. Changing a massive industry like agriculture, after all, requires global solutions. Its not enough to only help a few farmers, or only those cultivating high-end, high-value greens and specialty products. While it is important to cross the chasm starting with a concrete, even if small or specialized, market area, having an impact requires getting your product into the hands of farmers everywhere. It means partnering with big industry players and new startups alike. It means attracting investment and developing a world-class workforce of thousands.

The engine behind all of that is economics and profitability. We cant reach our goal of propelling our food systems toward environmental sustainability if were not sustainable, economically.

Theres this notion that there are two kinds of people, those who do good in the world without caring about money, and those who actively engage in commerce while caring only about money. Thats simply untrue. Money is a tool, a ledger of exchange for value. When we create solutions that solve some of the biggest problems of our time: Thats real value and real impact. Done well, business has an enormous capacity to truly move the world forward.

I couldnt have imagined back in my basement lab where Id be today. Science got me started on this path, and I couldnt keep up with the progress our team is making in our labs and workshops without that background. But the entrepreneurial toolkitone so rarely taught formally or in schoolshas been equally important: the confidence to chase answers, not just questions, and move, however haltingly, from theory to solutions that create real value and impact.

Karn Manhas (@karnmanhas) is the founder of Terramera, which focuses on using technology to grow affordable, clean food for everyone.

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Karn Manhas on the difference between science and business - Fast Company

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