Job Title & Company: Founder/CEO, Neural Bytes, LLC
Location: Washington, DC
How long you’ve been in your current job: Founded Neural Bytes in 2012
Postdoc Advisor: Barry Horwitz, PhD, IC: NIDCD
After your postdoc, what was your career progression like?
I knew I wanted to be independent and follow my own ideas, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. My wife and I ended up moving to London. I had an advisor/friend from Spain who I had a lot of success writing grant applications with, so we got together during one of his visits to London and we decided to write something together. We wrote a few grant proposals together and he got one of the grants later on. I enjoy writing grant applications and the stress of having to meet a deadline. All of this was in the field of robotics. But, it essentially was a freelance thing. He encouraged me to register a company in England, so that I could join the consortium formally. But, I’m not a business person so I didn’t understand why this was so important. While we were waiting to hear about the grants, I became a stay at home dad to our two children.
When the kids were a little older, I eventually founded my first company, Alpha Brain Technologies, which I registered in England. The goal of that company was to make games and applications for iphones and ipads to help people with the acquisition of a second language. For me, it was to use everything I knew about how the brain processes language since I had a lot of knowledge about that from my time at NIDCD because I did fMRI experiments and computational modeling, etc.
I really enjoyed creating the company and I used the resources in London for starting a business. Google had a program to help small businesses start and they gave you a website for free web tools and advice to help you. It was very fulfilling but not financially rewarding.
Is that company still in business?
No, after seven years in England, we moved back to Washington, DC so I shut that company down. And I opened a company in the US. This time I wanted to create computational models of the brain for researchers to use in the labs. I knew that most neuroscience labs do empirical work and that they often don’t have computer scientists on site. It is becoming more and more common that people have to pose some computational hypothesis for how things work, not just the results of their empirical studies. So, the idea of the company was to create software for those labs to use which was user-friendly.
Did you utilize any resources in the United States to help set up your business?
Yes, it was very different from setting up a business in England. What I have now is an LLC – a limited liability company and those don’t exist in England. But, I used a lot of resources through the Small Business Administration (SBA) and I also used a lot of resources through Score.org. They have lots of workshops and one-on-one meetings. That was great at the beginning, especially when you don’t know where to go, what to do, or how to start. They gave a lot of advice by phone, email, Skype, and in-person. They also have videos online that you can watch to help you.
Plus, an accountant. I had a hard time finding an accountant who I was able to ask basic questions to because there were basic concepts that I didn’t understand and I wanted to have a sense of how things worked. I did finally find one and it has worked out well. Accountants are a great resource to ask questions to and some of them have great websites/blogs with basic questions to help you as well.
What does a general day to day look like for you?
Since I started the contract with the NIH in April 2014, I spend a lot of time at the NIH. I would say half of my time is at the NIH. I generally go there in the mornings and spend 4-5 hours on the project that I have with them. The project will update a specialized software tool for brain modeling by making it more accessible to neuroscience researchers without computational experience. I have also given them ideas on how to upload that to an open repository. There has been a move recently to move everything to a more open science and having data and source code uploaded to public repositories. Mostly my contract involves writing software and giving them solutions for their research.
How did you win this contract? Was it a difficult process?
Yes, it was. I had something very specific in mind to build this research tool software, and then I had some ideas about how research was done at the NIH, but even so I had to do a lot of research about who was doing what. So, I ended up just approaching people and/or emailing them. I would give my business card and proposal. Many people said no, but then it just worked.
What are the most important skills that you utilize in this position?
I think presentation skills is a big one. Research skills is another big one. I did have to write a business proposal, but nobody really looks at it. It is really just for yourself, but it can be useful to have the skills to be able to write a vision statement and technical reports.
What is your favorite aspect of running your own business?
The independence and the flexibility in the hours. We have school-aged children so my wife and I both have to take them to school. A lot of flexibility helps with that. And I enjoy the independence because it means that I set my own goals. I know exactly what I want to do in the next five years and that is what I am going to do through my business or through a contract with my business or small business innovation grant. So, those two things are really great for me.
What has been the most challenging aspect about running your own company?
Paperwork and tax returns. There is just a lot of paperwork. I gradually eased into it, but it can be daunting because one has to have a license and a registration and a certificate of compliance, and a company number from the IRS, and a business bank account. There are lots of little things that need to happen in order to have a company which offers services. Then, there are lots more requirements in order to have a contract with the federal government. It is a long list of things that one has to set up and keep updating every year or so.
My accountant does the tax returns but I use QuickBooks to help keep track of everything. This helps keep track of all the expenses and I can upload the receipts and categorize it. At the end of the year, I can produce a report which I give to the accountant and they’ll tell me how much I have to pay and estimate it per federal/state.
For somebody who is hoping to go down a similar path and start a company, what last bits of advice would you give? In hindsight, is there anything you wish you would have done differently?
Yes, don’t wait! I waited and I was a little too cautious. I thought that if I started a business formally that there was no way back or that if I left it alone for a few months that it would go down the drain. Or that I had to either do research or have my own business, but no, that is not the case.
True, there are several things that you need to keep up with but there is no reason to wait if that is what you want. You can have a business and you can also have your research. In fact, I could have started a business as a postdoc because I had an idea already of what I wanted to do. Even now, I have an idea of what I want to do for my research so I continue writing scientific articles and presenting work at conferences. I want both things.
Don’t be afraid to try – it can feel intimidating, but it is not rocket science.