On leading a team from bleeding-edge science to transformative product - Technical.ly Philly

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Dec. 16, 2019 11:10 am

On leading a team from bleeding-edge science to transformative product

"There’s a natural and understandable cultural gap between scientists and those concerned with the business," writes Exyn Technologies CEO Nader Elm. Here's how to bridge it.
Exyn Technologies’ drone.

Exyn Technologies' drone.

(Courtesy photo)

This is a guest post by Nader Elm, CEO of Exyn Technologies.

I’ve built and led many businesses centered around technology and innovation, but my current experience at Exyn Technologies has perhaps pushed me deeper into the scientific discipline than ever before.

Our core offering sits at the very frontier of robotics and autonomous AI, and as such, the bulk of our team is necessarily comprised of Ph.D.s and engineers with serious academic chops. It’s absolutely thrilling to work alongside some of the most brilliant and forward-thinking minds of our time who are achieving feats that the rest of us might have never dreamed possible.

As we’ve evolved from building our technology and progressing through research and development to selling a product, I’ve learned a great deal about the unique set of challenges that come with commercializing bleeding-edge science. My experiences have taught me some invaluable lessons about how to bridge the worlds of academia, technology and business, and bring a diverse team with disparate needs together toward a common goal.

Balancing alignment and autonomy

There’s a natural and understandable cultural gap between scientists and those concerned with the business. What fundamentally motivates each of us is entirely different, and we generally operate under completely disparate rationales. In fact, you can see this gap clearly between the R and D of R&D: The research is one thing —the primary thing with which scientists are concerned — but developing that research to the point of commercialization is quite another.

So the challenge, therefore, is to ensure the two parties are aligned in the big-picture objectives, but without sacrificing individual autonomy and the creativity that follows. I’ve found an effective way to strike this balance is by defining high-level, company-wide objectives on a timeline, and then empowering individual teams to implement their own approach to accomplishing them. Encouraging small team autonomy within a structured mandate gives people the freedom to work using their preferred tools and methods while ensuring everyone remains aligned in what needs to get done, when it needs to get done.

Reframing the problem

Working with scientists who are less used to operating in a corporate setting has taught me a lot about how they approach problem-solving. When you’re accustomed to working in a lab, for example, you tend to zero in on the technical challenge at hand, and it feels like you’ve hit gold once you’ve solved it. In the corporate world, however, we need to solve customer problems. Our concerns don’t stop once we’ve achieved the technical outcome — we must also focus on the full lifecycle of the customer’s experience of purchasing and using the product.

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What worked well was the experience of the researchers being directly in front of the customer, and having the opportunity to absorb the customer’s needs first-hand and incorporate those inputs alongside the technical problems. Speaking to customers — which isn’t something scientists often have the opportunity to do — allows them to reframe the scope of their work to go beyond features and include real-world needs and requirements.

An added bonus of these interactions is that we’re able to gain better insight into how to translate highly technical, scientific jargon into the customer’s perceived needs, and vice versa, so we can better communicate the commercial benefit.

Setting the science up for success

Just as we’ve worked to help our scientists incorporate business objectives, our business has also benefited from understanding what helps the science advance. Rather than following the usual practices you see at high-tech companies like relying on remote or distributed teams or taking up residence in Silicon Valley, we’ve stuck with a different approach and purposefully centralized our operations to Philadelphia, which is where our core team of scientists is based.

This decision is driven primarily by the fact that our product is an autonomous flying robot. It’s such a tightly integrated, interdependent hardware-software solution that everyone who works on it has to be closely aligned, and so our company naturally tends to “huddle around the robot.” While greater centralization may seem to go against the current trend for distributed talent across multiple offices, it’s definitely how our scientists work best, and so we stick with it.

One of the biggest challenges in commercializing science is that you’re seeking to transform the stuff of research into a practical product while simultaneously gauging the market for that product, which requires an extraordinary balance of agility and cohesive momentum. It’s helpful to remember that when it comes to commercializing scientific breakthroughs, there is no “one size fits all” approach. So much of the approach must reflect the unique characteristics and quirks of your product, your people and your goals, and if you focus on addressing these head on, you will find your own path to success.

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