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.

What Inspires You? A Q&A with Sean Young, PhD

Image courtesy of  Lynwood Lord

Image courtesy of Lynwood Lord

Who were the instructors or mentors that made the biggest difference in your life?

My mentors have shaped my life so much. I guess I should start with my parents, who encouraged me to pursue any area of work that I wanted. They taught me that I need to satisfy my basic living needs of having a roof over my head, but after that all I need is to pursue what makes me happy. That if I really went after what I wanted I'd be successful enough, and more importantly, I'd be happy. I have my music teachers, like Roberto Miranda, my bass instructor at UCLA, who taught me to live in the moment and listen to things around me. My psychology professors in college like Traci Mann and Matt Lieberman taught me that I was a bigger nerd than I thought I was, by inspiring me so much that I would show up at their office hours every week just to talk to them and learn. I had graduate school advisors who accepted me to Stanford and then taught me that I wasn't as smart as I thought I was, that there are really brilliant people out there and that it's humbling being a researcher as you have to be wrong a lot. I've also been inspired by friends in the tech and business world who have helped me see a vision of how technology and psychology is the future of the world. Finally, I think I'm constantly guided by a mentor I never met, my mom's father, but I frequently hear stories about how he would have loved to see me playing music and working in medicine as he put himself through medical school by being a concert violinist.

I really think that who I am in life is less about what I've done and more about how others have shaped me, whether they were my ancestors who died before I was born to help me, or my mentors who shaped my life while I've been alive. But I guess that just proves I’m a social psychologist.

What book made the biggest impact on you? Also, are there any science writers or authors in general who you look to to inspire the public about developments in technology or psychology?

I think more than books, the thousands of psychology research papers I have read have really made a difference in my life. They taught me that the way I used to see the world was actually an area of study. They also taught me that people are much more similar to each other and much more connected than I would have thought. They taught me to be open to people and optimistic about society because we're all in it together and experiencing similar things.

Off the top of my head, the first influential book that comes to mind is
Market Wizards. That may be because I'm odd (that book has probably never been named in a top-10 list of influential books), or maybe it means I don't read books enough, but the other part is that I think it is really fascinating and influential. It's a book of interviews with some of the top hedge fund managers and traders. It's not just interesting for the advice they give on finance, but it's extremely rich in psychology. People are extremely emotional when it comes to losing money and these market wizards have mastered that psychology. They explain their processes and paths, with many ups and downs, and I realized that the same principles could be applied far beyond trading, to mastering psychology and emotions throughout all parts of life.

You graduated from Stanford, so I’m wondering if you’ve been inspired by entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley? Also, the Los Angeles area has its own technological boomtown in Santa Monica, which has embraced the nickname “Silicon Beach.” Do you see an opportunity to work with start-up companies in Santa Monica?

I’ve always cared about making sure my work applies to the real world. One way I've done this is to keep one foot rooted in the start-up community. For example, last week, I gave a presentation at the Seoul Forum in Korea (click here for video). At the beginning of the talk, I gave an example of a company I worked with at Stanford that got started when we were all students. The company took research I had done in psychology and incorporated it into a healthcare product. I was involved in a number of start-ups in grad school, throwing myself into every new experience I could find. Some examples were a rating system for assisted living facilities, a sports betting app, and a way to connect healthcare workers across the world to people in areas that experienced disasters like earthquakes.

When I moved to L.A., there wasn’t yet much of a start-up scene so I had to pull friends from the Bay Area to work with me, but over the past few years the L.A. start-up has gotten really hot. Some of the start-ups I’ve been involved with in L.A. have been one on creating an online health community, a prediction market that can be used to predict sports, music, and political events, and my own automated stock trading method to predict moves in the market. I haven't had much time where I can lead a start-up, so lately I've spent more time advising companies. I currently advise five companies that are primarily in the health and technology space.

School districts are competing to see who can install the most up-to-date technology and online learning tools. Do you see tech educational aids as a universal good for students, or have you heard of instances where they hinder learning?

I think technologies are just tools that can make things more efficient and able to reach a lot of people. They can be used for good or bad. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can lead to bad things, like people bullying each other, but they can also lead to good things, like getting people to be healthier when social media is paired with the HOPE intervention. I think the situation is the same for education. If used correctly, tech aids can improve education and inspire students. We were recently asked by a large funder to modify the HOPE intervention to improve teaching methods among teachers. I believe tools like HOPE that allow people to become educated all across the world at the same time can be really valuable in our educational system.

If you could make a 30-second speech to the entire world, what would you say?

If I could address the entire world, I'd rather do it in a song than a speech!