Academia vs. the Private Sector: A Q&A with Sean Young, PhD

In addition to being a professor, you’ve worked closely with start-up companies. In my experience, people from academia and the private sector have difficulty finding common ground. What’s your secret to bridging these two fields?

I give a lot of detail about this in a recent presentation I gave at the Seoul Forum. I think it’s important for researchers to spend time with entrepreneurs and business people to understand their work and needs. As researchers, we’re supposed to be open-minded and think about how our work can apply to the world and the best way to do that is to interact with people from other disciplines in the public and private sectors. We can learn a lot from them about how to focus our research as well as tools that can be integrated into a research study. I’ve always made an effort to do this by taking classes in fields outside my expertise, making friends with people with very different training backgrounds, volunteering my time to work in areas where I have little training but can learn a lot, and taking on additional projects that could complement my skills.

The draw of start-up companies is pretty strong for graduating students. What would you say to retain a “star” data scientist who can get paid much more in the private sector? 

That’s a tough question. I think it’s less about what I would say and more about the questions I would ask to see if the candidate is a good fit. Most people are driven to make as much money as they can. For many people, they don’t have options other than to make a lot of money. They might have families that they need to support, or parents with expensive healthcare bills. That being said, if a person has an entrepreneurial mindset and can take risks in the present for big gains in the future, then working as a data scientist at a public institution could be the right fit. For example, in our group, we’re building technologies that have the potential to compete with companies like Google and Facebook. While our technologies are designed to be open source to give back to the world, it’s possible to develop proprietary products on top of our technologies. Those products have the potential to make a lot of money. But overall, people should join our group if they love creativity, want to have influence over the direction of research and a growing organization, and are excited about making an impact in the world. Unlike most companies, our end customer is not shareholders—it’s the general public and the organizations that seek to provide information, health, and safety for the world.

What start-up practices can be incorporated into a university setting to increase organizational efficiency? Also, is there anything academia has to offer the private sector in terms of how to operate more effectively?

Great question. I’ve recently been asked to join a board at UCLA to address these topics. I think we need to have good leadership and modeling. We need examples of researchers who have designed efficient research programs, and of researchers who have commercialized their work successfully. We need these researchers to share their work and become role models just like our role models in the HOPE Study. We also need partnerships with industry and venture capital to provide roadmaps and funding for how to streamline research and show researchers that if they can efficiently manage research projects, then funding and business people are waiting to help them apply their work in the world. Stanford University did a great job of this and it really inspired me when I was there as a graduate student.

Do you think about the potential commercial applications of your research when you start a study?

I sometimes think about commercial applications, but more likely I think of general applications. I don’t care necessarily if what we do has commercial appeal. I care if it solves an important problem. There are great models for how to study whether your work will solve an important need. Steve Blank and Eric Ries have written a lot about the customer development cycle and how startups can use them. I’m a big believer that these principles can be applied to research to ensure that we’re working with our end users (e.g., government stakeholders, individuals, or business people) to conduct research that will benefit them.

Do you feel academics would benefit from using leadership styles more commonly seen in the private sector, or vice versa?

I think they both can benefit from each other. I’m a big believer in education. In the social sciences and humanities students are taught to educate themselves by spending time with people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. I definitely agree with that but am also a big believer in educating ourselves by spending time with people from different training and work backgrounds.

Startups have to be nimble. They have to learn fast. This is the opposite of the process in many large corporations and academic institutions. These institutions could learn a lot from startups. On the other hand, corporations care about making money. They do this through having good relationships, understanding how to market and sell ideas and products, and by creating processes to manage large groups of people. Startups and academic researchers could learn a lot from corporations. Academic researchers are great at studying one topic for a long time and really understanding everything about that topic. They’re great at being passionate about their work about thinking critically about the long-term consequences of their work. So, start-ups and corporations could learn a lot from them.

Sean Young PhD

UCLA Center for Digital Behavior, Medical Plaza, Los Angeles, CA, 90024, United States

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I'm a scientist, innovator, and UCLA medical school professor. I study the science behind human digital behavior (see for more info about this field of research).I also assemble technology teams and solutions to improve UCLA Family Medicine patient care. For more info or to contact me: