Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

What makes an entrepreneur?

Posted in Careers, People / organisations by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on June 21, 1999

Dr. Jeff Solomon is one of those people who can transform anything into an engaging story. My favourite is the one where he wins a biotech business plan competition. To me, it shows most of what it takes to become an entrepreneur.

Jeff is a post-doc chemical engineer at Cambridge. He enjoys his teaching duties, and puts a lot of creativity into the exercise. So when he invited a colleague from the States to run a course on problem solving, he wanted to set his class an interesting problem. By coincidence, our friend from across the pond had been preoccupied with just such a problem on the plane.
It was the zebra muscle.
Over here, my only experience of muscles was the microbiology lecturer regaling us with tales of violent food poisoning. In America, by contrast, the muscles are a serious pest. The humbles creatures arrived at the Americas via the transatlantic tankers. Once there, they quickly invaded the new ecosystems, displacing other species form the lake environments they enjoy. Worse still, their favourite habitat is water pipes. They stick to the walls, rapidly reproduce, and soon clog the entire pipe. Whole villages have been deprived of water in the winter months.
So, said Jeff to class, how would you combat this menace? Apparently the combination of problem, teachers and class led to several eureka moments, and a promising solution.
Here’s the second coincidence. Jeff saw a poster for a new biotech business plan competition. Their idea seemed perfect, and entry required a simple five page proposal. Their plan was selected for the next round, and they got some training from the organisers – the final stage required a complete, professional business plan. He had never expected the document to reach its final size of 44 densely informative pages. Indeed he confessed later that if he knew that’s how much work it would take, he would never have tried. But he knew help was needed to go beyond five pages.
Coincidence number three – he asked his friend, a supervisor in marine biology at the same college, if she knew any experts on zebra shells. Try my PhD student, she replied. Turns out he is a world expert on zebra fish. His claims to fame include the ability to identify the species of any British zebra fish by touch alone, under water. He can even identify their sex by smell. This is the kind of ally to ensure technical feasibility.
Jeff and co-conspirators set themselves December as the date of completion. The contest’s official submission date was February, but Jeff was going to Chile in January, to visit a friend. Being rather organised, he managed to meet this deadline and fly off to holiday in peace. Indeed, on a very peaceful beach, he recounted to his friend the story of the competition.
Excellent, his friend said, you must have included a table of internal rate of return. I’m still a little mystified as to what this means, but the Chilean was adamant of its importance. Then again, it’s his job to know – he’s a lecturer in economics. So, in 15 minutes, the two constructed just such a table, and Jeff went off to the nearest fax machine. By February, the competition’s organisers received a very classy looking 44 page document, that ended in a professional internal rate of return table.
He won.
Jeff says this story shows some of the classic hallmarks of entrepreneurship. Inspiration and perspiration of course. A network of diverse and skilled friends. And several twists of fate, that needed the right kind of person to take advantage of them.
But I believe there’s an extra point that’s missing from the popular portrayal of entrepreneurs: business training. Press and public love the accounts of million-dollar fortunes bestowed upon kids barely old enough to vote (or in America, own a gun). All they need, we are told, are computer skills and a good idea. On the other hand, listen to the venture capitalists, and the opinion is different. These kids are scary individuals to invest in. A good idea needs so much support to become a good business, that it is rarely sufficient to get you investment.
The real big boy entrepreneurs received serious training. Look no further than Jeff Bezos, who started life as an at D.E. Shaw, a securities and investment firm. For me personally, the conversion came when I read about Dr Doron Junger, founder of This ambitious young company provides an online community for doctors. It’s my dream to play a critical role in such a company. As founder, Doron’s role began when he interrupted his clinical practice as a surgeon, and went to the INSEAD business school. At the end of the course, he submitted his idea for, and won the business plan competition. The result – formidable venture capital support, and a very promising business.
It’s with this in mind that I decided my career path must include a stint in the City. Our lecturers are fond of telling us how many important skills we pick up at our medical training. But business skills are not amongst those.
In another one of those delightful coincidences, a recruitment company was recently founded to help doctors searching for jobs in the City. I went along to their training day, and soon knew I was making the right decision.
The founder himself, Peter Harrison, had worked at Goldman Sachs. After this, he became a serial entrepreneur. This included a real estate dot-com, a recruitment company targeting women and ethnic minorities, and now this.
The recruits themselves were of similar breed. Several had founded companies, and one had rolled out a network with a telecomm provider, a project involving a jaw-dropping number of millions. Although many in the room simply wanted a career in investment banking or management consultancy, some very clearly saw it as a stepping-stone to greater things.
A McKinsey consultant once summed it up to me. Many people see the up-or-out policy of City jobs as a ruthless survival of the fittest – if you are not good enough for promotion, you soon leave the company. But for McKinsey, it is actually a constant struggle to retain and promote the most talented employees before they leave for a more interesting start-up. And looking at how happy Jeff, Doron and Peter seem to be, it must be a mighty struggle.