For many people, a scientific entrepreneur sounds like a contradictory term.
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But it might surprise you to discover that some of history's most well-known scientists also exhibited an entrepreneurial streak.
Although Ben Franklin was never president, he was both a first-rate scientist and businessman. As a scientist, his inventions covered a broad range of interests and included devices such as the lightning rod, bifocals, the iron furnace stove, a carriage odometer, and the harmonica. However, his business achievements were equally impressive. By the age of 24, Franklin was already on the road to entrepreneurial success, owning a print shop, a newspaper, and a general store. These businesses, combined with the commercialization of his inventions, eventually made Franklin one of the wealthiest men of his time.
Thomas Edison is a textbook example of a scientist who converted his inventions into successful commercial applications. Although he is credited with more than 1,000 U.S. patents, his greatest discoveries were undoubtedly the phonograph and (most importantly) the light bulb. Not long after his invention of the incandescent light bulb, Edison recruited a team of high-powered investors (does J.P. Morgan ring a bell?) and formed the Edison Electric Light Company. From the outset, Edison had a vision to make electricity available to the masses. His company's unofficial mission was to make electricity so cheap that only the rich would burn candles. To move the process along, Edison even went the additional step of patenting an electrical distribution system to create a ready-made power supply for his product.
George Eastman was the inventor who single-handedly brought photography into the home of American consumers. Intrigued by photography, Eastman became obsessed with designing a development process that was convenient and hassle-free. From the outset, he had an eye toward marketing the results of his research to the general public. Upon receiving the patent for his roll film camera in 1888, he immediately began production, selling his product under the marketing slogan, "You press the button, we do the rest." Interestingly, Eastman's marketing savvy persisted throughout his career. His company name, Kodak, was an invention based on three clever marketing concepts: The name had to be short, impossible to mispronounce, and totally unique. It must have worked, because Kodak went on to be the leader in film and photography for much of the twentieth century.
Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Marie Curie is yet another scientist who demonstrated a concern for the commercial ramifications of her work. What makes Curie even more extraordinary is the fact that she lived during a time when women were not generally accepted within either the scientific or business communities. Yet despite these obstacles, her discovery of the element radium opened the door for further discoveries in the area of radioactivity. Sensing the importance of her discovery, Curie refrained from patenting the radium-isolation process. Additionally, she went out of her way to collaborate with industry, training industrial physicists in her own laboratory. Although her collaborative spirit may have hurt her financially, it did lead to its own reward: Two Nobel prizes including a Nobel Peace prize.