What grad school taught me about startups

Lichen Zhang and Lucas Liepert with a 5K cheque for PriveHealth

Lichen Zhang and Lucas Liepert pose with a $5,000 cheque for PriveHealth at the Velocity Fund Finals pitch competition.

As I work toward the end of my grad studies, it only recently dawned on me how similar the process of building a thesis is to that of starting a startup. If you had told me this two years ago, I couldn't have imagined two paths that I thought were more different.

It seems to me that many grad students possess a unique disposition to think through problems through first principles. By starting from fundamental truths, the bounds of conventional thinking dissolves and instead ideas are based on fundamental insights. These insights can be gained, in part, through literature review, data collection, and analysis. These learnings are what lead us to either support or refute our research hypothesis which become our contribution to a body of knowledge.

When the thesis is presented in the form of an academic paper, it is peer-reviewed and evaluated based on its quality that is recognized in terms of the originality of the work (what new ideas or approaches are introduced?) and its significance (what are its benefits to others and why does it matter?). Similarly, I am compelled to answer the same questions for our startup, PriveHealth.

During the beginning stages of a startup, unique insights that belong to founders help them answer questions like “What do you understand about the problem that other companies just don't get?” These valuable nuggets of information can be collected by talking to potential users or industry experts and conducting market research (aka literature review) to learn more about customers and competitors. And like a thesis, it’s unrealistic to expect that every hypothesis we come up with will be correct. What matters instead is how quickly we can gain a deeper understanding of why a particular hypothesis didn't work out and how to move forward.

In theses and startups alike, ideas don’t emerge fully formed. Their execution takes time, strategy, management, and an enormous amount of energy. I’m motivated by the human impact of my research, that aims to reduce construction worker injuries through principles of biomechanics, and our startup, that aims to combat cyber crime through education. While it is daunting to imagine the long road ahead, the past year of researching and running a startup were more fulfilling and purposeful than any other.

Throughout the past year, the support for our startup has been incredible. I am deeply grateful to both grad school and Velocity for providing me with the opportunities to grow as an individual. Most Friday nights, I think of all the ways I can do better the following week for my research team and my startup team --  listen better, delegate better, or manage my own psyche better and incrementally, I see myself improve.

To grad students who are thinking about entrepreneurship, the first step is to find a problem, and chances are, you’re already working on one.

Lichen Zhang is a MASc candidate in the department of Civil Engineering, the founder and head of product at PriveHealth, and the design director at UW Blueprint. Lichen has also participated in several pitch competitions, including: the Three Minute Thesis competitions, where she was a university-wide finalist, Problem Pitch, and the Velocity Fund Finals, where PriveHealth was a $5K winner. 

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