In this episode, Tina Persson and Sajni Haria discuss the entrepreneurial mindset that PhDs can train themselves with if they start thinking of the bigger picture of commercialising their research.
During your PhD, have you ever thought if the world actually needs your research? Would people want to use your product?
In this episode, Tina Persson and Sajni Haria discuss the entrepreneurial mindset that PhDs can train themselves with if they start thinking of the bigger picture of commercialising their research. Sajni also reminds us of how PhDs do not just have an academic skill set but also a vast set of transferable skills that can help them translate their research.
Sajni holds a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Birmingham and currently is a Business Development Manager at the National Institute of Health and Care Research. She supports the Life Science industry to navigate the UK’s clinical research ecosystem whilst providing her business acumen.
Sajni also talks about how she transitioned from a doctoral researcher to a Business Development Manager where she helps to push research technologies forward, and finds opportunities for implementing these technologies in the real-world setting by fostering collaborations, thereby improving the quality of life of patients.
Listen to this episode to know more about Sajni’s insights.
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Tina Persson: Hi and welcome, this is Tina Persson from PhD Career Stories, and today's guest is a PhD and her name is Sajni Haria and she has a PhD in drug design of nanoparticles from Birmingham, but today she is working as a Business Development Manager in the Life Sciences sector at the National Institute of Health and Care Research, and some interesting background from her, is that she has been an Event Coordinator in UK in the Hindu society and this woman has lived in Kenya for 8 years before she came back because she was born in UK. Then she lived in Kenya for 8 years and then came back and started primary school there, so you have a very interesting background that we're going to have a short discussion around here. So welcome to the show, Sajni.
Sajni Haria: Thank you for having me on. It's a pleasure.
Tina: It's a pleasure to have you here. We started the discussion here before I pressed the recording button. I said you know we have some thundering and lightning going on, because I'm sitting in my home in Malmö, in the Copenhagen metropolitan area. So we hope that this thundering and lightning will not disturb the recording here. So how is it in London where you're living?
Sajni: So actually I've just moved to a new part of London, I used to live with my parents. I've moved to a place called West Hampstead, which is lovely. Very hot weather at the moment. But I think it cooled down a bit today, so that's okay. Yeah, so London life is good at the moment.
Tina: I know that you have a strike going on in London.
Sajni: Yeah, so today is working from home day. There's absolutely no going anywhere.
Tina: Yeah, it's hot here too. So yes, I am sweating in my flat, Swedish houses are not built for the heat that we have. So you have a wonderful background and you work as a Business Development Manager. I'm curious what kind of skills you have, or did you learn as a PhD, that you could make use of in the job you have today.
Sajni: So after I finished my PhD, I got a grant to go onto a program which is all about commercialization of University research. So using my sort of commercial background, the program trains you to have a business entrepreneurial mindset to sort of go through this market research of your research, you do everything yourself so they really really train you. That's what the grant was for. So essentially I got all my skills from that basically. But from my PhD, you don't just have academic skills behind you. You have such a huge skillset, you have adaptability, because we teach students, you have been able to work under pressure. It's a huge pressure and challenging environment. You have all these sorts of different transferable skills that you can apply to, so never forget that you just have an academic background because you don't, you have so much more than that. So those skills, along with the sort of commercial skills that I developed during the program is what allowed me to sort of get into the industry that I am now, which is sort of business development commercialization.
Tina: You say entrepreneurship, what is an entrepreneurship mindset for you?
Sajni: So I think because as a student with a sort of PhD Chemistry background, my mindset was always thinking about the science, about the technology that I was working on, but I never really thought about, do people actually need what I'm working on? Is this actually something that's wanted, would someone actually buy this, or if people don't want to buy it, how can I tailor it to something that they would want to buy? So that the benefits of my technology matches with the pains of the customer. So, It's really trying to change your mindset to think in a business way so that you're always, um, fitting to what a customer needs, for what a big market needs. So you're always thinking about some sort of market opportunity because, when you do research you really delve into something that you're interested in, or something that you find along the way and it might not necessarily be something that the world needs.
Tina: Yeah, this is interesting because a PhD trains a lot of skills, but it doesn't necessarily train you to think from the customer's perspective. Not at all. Yeah, so the entrepreneurial mindset is something that you can train or is something that you maybe have a natural gift for, if you realize what it is. What do you think?
Sajni: I'm not sure if it's a natural gift because I think it's something that you really need to practice because it was such a new concept to me that I found it hard in the beginning. But once you go and start talking to people, talking to a range of people across the supply chain, seeing where the problems are, you start to begin to have these sort of business conversations, because if I'm talking to someone who's not from a scientific background, I can't talk in a scientific language because they're just going to lose interest, aren't they? So I really need to and make sure I'm engaging with people so I need to be adaptable in the way I talk, which is where your skills from a PhD comes in useful, because you might have presented at a conference, you might have presented at different scientific backgrounds. So you just need to transfer that skill into a commercial environment where you're adapting your language to people with different backgrounds essentially. So that's a skill that I've learned only by talking and practicing a lot.
Tina: I'm going to test your hypothesis here, because you know I'm curious, because what I have noticed is that people that don't have a PhD. They create and build companies, and they sort of start to generate money, and they don't have a PhD. You can go back to people that maybe don't even have an academic degree and they start a bakery and they generate money in the bakery. They don't necessarily have a PhD and I would say that's also sort of entrepreneurial. So could it be a different sort of entrepreneurial? You say “When you have a PhD and then you have to train you to see from a customer's point of view?” What's your perspective?
Sajni: I think that's to do with experience because they've been working in a completely different environment. They've gained a sort of commercial knowledge in their industry, in a completely different way, maybe in a more natural way because they're already out there talking to people, whereas when you do your PhD, I'm in my chemistry department, most people who I speak to are all academic people. Unless I have a joint PhD with industry, which I didn't, only some people did, I never had that experience and anyway when I present it's always to an academic audience. So I never, I never had that engagement and that's what I was trying to break, was to sort of build up my commercial experience. Because it's very different and I think that's maybe why for example, someone who doesn't have a PhD they've started their company. Their experience is totally different and maybe they've built up that sort of CV for them. So they're able to have this knowledge that we don't have. It's a completely different skill set or different knowledge, but I think both are valuable.
Tina: That's good to hear. So if you now go back here, would you re-do your PhD with the knowledge you have today?
Sajni: Oh, definitely. Actually having just thought about what you've asked me, this should be something that's taught to you, sort of thinking about how your project could be used in the future as a technology or a product, or you know whatever you're building, because if you have that in your mind from the beginning you can direct your PhD towards a commercial direction from the get go. So you're actually developing something that people want to buy or want to use. You might have time to go and talk to potential customers to find a market opportunity and you could spin something out, instead of waiting a lot longer. It can take years to spin out from a University technology. You can get things patented a lot quicker if you have this knowledge. I think you could move your project forward a lot more.
Tina: But maybe in different fields. You need a PhD and for a certain mindset and then retrain you and grow into entrepreneurial and business for certain fields. Because there are many companies today that are so technology driven. So you need a fundamental basis of understanding of the field.
Sajni: That's where the advantage of me having a PhD comes into the job I'm doing now, because of my technical background. So when companies come to us they have these technologies that I've never heard of but I'm able to read about it, quickly understand what they're trying to do, so I'm able to really understand their priorities, what they really want to get out of the support that we might be able to give them.
Tina: Now I'm hearing something important, you will be the bridge to understand the technology and translate the language so clients and customers can understand the importance.
Sajni: That's exactly what my job is. I was kind of doing it before when I got the grant, but in a different way because I was coming from a research background, whereas now I'm coming from a business development background. But I'm sort of that bridge between academia, universities who are doing research, and industry who want to collaborate with the researchers. So I'm that sort of bridge, helping them come together, essentially.
Tina: A lot of sales is to actually understand your clients and understand what needs they have, so when you understand their needs, you can tailor your questions to them and present, so they understand, okay we need this, we need this product here, because both customers and organizations you're selling to, might not at the moment see the potential in your product.
Sajni: And this is exactly one of the things that I was trained on, during the commercialization program, which is something that I wouldn't have got from my PhD, which is sort of where the entrepreneurial mindset comes into play. All these things that they've trained us on, because when you have a conversation with someone, you really want to show them that you're trying to understand them, understand their needs. Your support is personalized to them because you're not going to get anywhere if they don't feel that they have a good relationship with you, that they can trust you. So that's definitely where that sort of training I got came into play, and I was able to leverage both of the skillsets I have in the job I am today.
Tina: So the program you attended, did you apply for it, you said you got the scholarship for it?
Sajni: Yeah, it's called ICURe, which stands for innovation and commercialization of University research. It's funded by quite a few organizations in the UK. And we had a few research groups in the chemistry department in Birmingham where I worked before, go through the program, sort of find a few opportunities whether it's licensing their technologies or spinning out or finding really good industry collaborations. And the technology that my research group was working on, we had a lot of protected IP, so we had a patent on it, and I think it was getting to a really good stage where we were thinking, what can we do with this research now, which is when I applied for the grant, I successfully got onto the program. And then this program was there for us to sort of drive the work forward, find any good opportunities whether it's licensing deals, spinning out if that's the best option for it or if it's just directing it towards different commercial activities, if we found that the work that we're doing is actually not valuable for the industry that we wanted to go into.
Tina: So how could our listeners get access to that program?
Sajni: So there are loads of different types of acceleration programs in the UK. I'm not sure about other European countries, but in the UK there are things called acceleration programs, where in a very short amount of time (3-6 months), they give you this training and it basically gives you time out of the lab to go and test your theories on potential customers. That's essentially what the money that you're being given is to do, so you have to apply to these grants. I don't know too many, but the one that I did is run by different organizations. So the one that I did was called SETsquared. But there are also ones run by I think West Midlands, which is in the middle of the UK. So there are different organizations, they're basically partnerships with universities that come together. The University essentially employs you, you get onto this program and then you have all these business mentors and advisors who are training you, and they basically help you along your journey because you do everything yourself, but you also have a tech transfer officer from University who supports you, with sort of IP knowledge and a business advisor who you employ.
Tina: So it's an extensive program that you're doing. We talked about your background here, so if you now listen to Sajni, if you have a PhD and you think “Oh God I like to learn that entrepreneurial stuff, I like to see the connection and learnings what I have learned, and customize it and then bring it on the market, and see the value in it is selling it to to the market, I'd love to do that.” Listen here because it is possible, you know. If you live in the UK here you have one program, and I'm quite sure that you can find other programs where you are living, or maybe even in the digital world now you can find programs on the internet etc. But I like to take you in the future here now, and that means now you are a business development manager. So where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Sajni: I really want to sort of gain an increase in my commercial experience and knowledge and talk to companies, so that in the future I have sort of all this, because also I work for the NHIR. It's government funded, so we have a massive overview over what happens in the UK with the NHS, we have a lot of knowledge coming from the department of health and social care. So the position I'm in is so good for me to learn at the moment. So I really want to increase that. Keep that under my belt so that in the future I'm able to go somewhere whether it's in the same company or somewhere else, and move higher and be able to sort of lead teams and be able to sort of be in a more strategic position I guess. I think that's what my plan is at the moment because I'm learning so much at the moment. I want to continue to a really good point.
Tina: Yeah I understand that, you know it's not a quick fix. Some of you that know my background know that I as an assistant professor moved over to business development, and it took me many years to really develop into the field. And working in different positions and having different perspectives of the business, you know I was a branch manager, recruitment manager, sales representative, different perspective but still selling and earning money in the end by developing the product, basically. And it's fun when you like it. It's not for everyone and that is what makes me curious. What is it in this that you think is fun that gives you energy in this job?
Sajni: So when I was on ICURe what really made me fall in love with it, which is why I wanted to sort of apply for jobs in business development, was the fact that I'm actually moving technology forward. Even though I'm not doing research which is just so much hard work goes behind building a patented technology, and I really appreciate it obviously because I did a PhD, but what I was doing was finding opportunities, really actually trying to implement a technology into a real world setting, so that it could potentially be used in the future, potentially save people's lives, improves improve people's quality of life in the life sciences industry, which is why I really like business development, because you see so many technologies out there and they have such huge potential. So if we could help them really try to get through theTRL pathway into implementation with the NHS it would be amazing because, you know, obviously since COVID there's a huge backlog especially in the UK, I'm not sure with Sweden but we have a huge backlog in hospital waiting times. And it's really innovation that is going to push this forward to sort of overcome these challenges that we have now. So I think innovation is just so interesting to me.
Tina: It is interesting. Yeah, we have the same challenge as you. We are completely backlogged in Sweden, they said in the city where I'm living, we have a huge hospital, and the queue to operate is all the way from Malmo to Copenhagen. So it's an awfully long queue because of a pandemic. So the pandemic has changed a lot. If you look in the field you are in, what would you say that the pandemic has changed in the field you are active in?
Sajni: So I think before COVID the whole of the UK was very much a reactive response to when anything happened. But I think now it's also embedded in the NHS long-term plan that as an industry, especially in diagnostics we really need to become proactive because if something like COVID happens again we need to be anticipating these things before, because that's where the backlog starts to happen. So I think there's this huge change from reactive to proactive which is one of the big things. I think that's what's driving a lot of innovation at the moment, which is why we need better diagnostics and better treatments. And there are loads of strategic priorities that have been set out by the government, for example, working on early detection of cancer, because cancer is a massive cause of deaths across the world. So there are loads of strategic priorities, mental health is another one and I think part of that is like dementia. So there's loads of different strategic priorities and areas of focus that the government has also set out. So I think there's been a shift now and there are all these areas of focus set out which is where all these new innovations can come and help us.
Tina: It feels like the pandemic has accelerated the shift sort of, accelerated the feeling we had before the pandemic, we have to do something, we need to change, but nothing really happened and then the pandemic came and I remember, I turned my business in two weeks to be completely digital. It was a catalyst.
Sajni: Yeah, it's a catalyst. Yeah I think also not just for the industry, just for people because it really stopped people from doing things that they would have done, really paused life for everyone. So once it was all open again it was kind of like, okay I need to do what I've I want to do now, because you don't know when these things are gonna go.
Tina: So we come into the end of the podcast here and time really flies when you have wonderful discussions with people like you here. So, if you now look back on things and you are still very young, you have a long career in front of you, what would you have done differently if you had the information you have today. What would you have done differently if you had to re-do your PhD?
Sajni: That's a really good question. This is something that you would need to instill in yourself from the beginning of your PhD. This is a natural feeling, but it's a very stressful journey isn't it? So I think you need to sort of learn how to deal with stress management, if you have anxiety, things like that from the beginning. Because you're going to need it throughout your journey and if you have these things under your belt, you'll be able to work on your project a lot better. You might have the capacity to think about, for example, market opportunities, if that's something that you're interested In. You will have the capacity to do other things and you will feel like you are achieving a lot more if you get these things under your belt from the first day.
Tina: So what I hear is to handle anxiety and stress from the beginning. Maybe have a PhD coach supporting you with that. And what I hear is also that you very early on start to think about your next step. You don't have to type a decision but at least follow what's going on in the market.
Sajni: I think having some sort of rough plan in your head is a really good way. When I finished the program I decided to quit, which was very risky and I went traveling for three months, but what I did do was I worked really hard at Christmas to apply for loads of jobs, to apply to really research what I wanted to go into, make sure I researched other potential careers, so that when I do come back from traveling I'm not sitting with nothing to do, although luckily for me I got the job that I really wanted whilst I was traveling.
Tina: Yeah, that shows clearly that what you did was you took a step back, worked a little bit more resilience and did not worry about that. I will tell you that when I finished my PhD, we were told to take a break, because you were PhD tired after your PhD. It's like going to a gold medal in an atlantic game and then, when you've got the medal around your neck, you start to work on Monday, it's not human, you should take a break. So when you take a break life will come to you sometimes.
Sajni: I think in the UK that mindset is completely lost today, and I really felt that I would be judged if I don't have anything in place after. Luckily I got onto this program but actually I didn't want to have a job. I really wanted to go traveling. That's something I always wanted to do. It's been a huge part of my life since I was young. Unfortunately because of COVID, I wasn't able to, which is why luckily this program worked really well for me. But after it finished, which is when COVID was ending, I was thinking I really want to go. But if I start this job maybe spin this out I'll never have time and I'll have to quit, if I want to do something that I really want to do for myself. So I took a huge risk, I left after three months which is not that much experience, but some experience. I did what I wanted to do, which was traveling and I'm honestly so grateful and happy that I did that, because I think I would have been more upset if I was doing what I was doing before.
Tina: I will share with the listeners here and I'm going to strengthen what you say. You see, I'm a completely different generation from you, but when I finished my PhD, we took a break, we were told to take a break because you need to rest, you need to recover, otherwise you will work hard after PhD and you will be too tired to make a good decision. So my best friend she traveled for six months and then she started, and I just took a spare time job. And then I actually went for a postdoc but that was a gap in between, and that is called recovery time, and it's called that you are post-PhD tired and that is lost in these days.
Sajni: Um, yeah, yeah, it's completely lost.
Tina: You do your PhD and then you run to the next steps and I say, listen, no no. We need to take a little bit of recovery time if it's possible.
Sajni: I mean I didn't because I did my undergraduate until Masters, which is four years and then I started my PhD and then I finished last year, so that's nine years with nothing. There's no break Nearly a decade. And I'm so surprised that hardly that many people in my department do it because I just felt when I came back to my job I'm so much more motivated and happy. I used to be so unhappy in my PhD because of my anxiety. Now I'm a completely different person even though I do have anxiety. There's so many things I learned when I was traveling, especially being flexible and adaptable because when you travel things can change all the time and now I can deal with situations a hundred times better now.
Tina: Yes, good advice. Good advice. Take a break. So with that said I think that was a very good ending here. So I would like to say thank you very much Sajni for the wonderful time you spent with me here and to you guys I say, don't forget PhD Career Stories. We are always here for you and you find we have over 100 podcasts on our web page. You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin, and our webpage phdcareerstors.com. Never hesitate to reach out to us. We are there for you. So this is Tina Persson, PhD Career Stories. Have a lovely day and take care.