Is academia more risky than startups?

Yesterday I went to the “Business Ideas” workshop organised in Zurich by Venture Kick for the ETH startup scene.

There were talks by successful spinoffs like Aerotainment Labs and SwissLitho talking about their experiences which are all positive of course. And the challenges, and the freedom… Blah.

The most interesting thing I learned was why companies spend millions and millions in advertisement in big sport events. Did you know it was not only for the visibility? They’re in for the emotions: the high-stake, the suspens, the belonging. Positive and strong emotions. They want to be associated with that.

Anyway, while I was busy stuffing myself with free food I bumped into this guy, stuffing himself too. He must be a researcher, I thought. No one stuffs themselves at a networking event if they had a real salary.

It turns out he’s a postdoc, with a viable business plan and first prototype of Bitcoin payment stick or something. Soon, he will have to choose between getting a tenure position, or getting serious with the startup company.

And I think the white wine kicked in because we started listing all the tragic comical statistics of both options. Here’s a quick summary.

  • In both world you have 1 chance out of 200 to get a position or a funding.
  • You have crappy pay until you hit the jackpot – with a tenure or a good exit.
  • You belong to tight-knitted community with a very strong identity that makes it difficult to leave, even when you know it’d be better for you.
  • It is possible to have an idea too early, too late, or scooped by another team.
  • Publishing in peer-reviewed journal <-> gaining market share.
  • No work-life balance.
  • At 35 you’re old.

So we got to the conclusion that it was as likely to get a professor position as to have a successful start-up.

I was shocked, really. I always thought that doing a start-up was more risky.

Until one last input. Apparently, just by getting the prototype of his product ready, he got 5 job offers in case it didn’t work out.

So I guess that puts academia as the riskier one.


6 thoughts on “Is academia more risky than startups?

  1. Would you not receive 5 job offers if you published an excellent abstract on an article to be written on data science?
    And aren’t you looking at job security only from a “top” “jackpot” approach and not from a “bottom” “security” approach, i.e. it’s still easier to have a (badly) paid job in research than in a startup?
    Love the article btw.

    1. The thing is, after 35 you don’t have a choice: you either get a professorship or you’re out. In many countries including Switzerland, postdoc positions are age-limited. And they are never permanent contracts.

      So you’re right, it’s easy to have a badly paid job when you’re 20. It’s just that after a certain time, opportunities for “bottom/security” don’t even exist anymore. You can only aim for the jackpot.

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