Nick Oberlies’ Guide to Scientific Entrepreneurship

Daphne Nwobike

Staff Writer

The surprising but inextricable link between scientific research and entrepreneurship is one Nick Oberlies, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has encountered many times throughout his professional career. The Babson Center invited him to share details surrounding his passion for chemistry, his ongoing research project, and advice for succeeding as a scientific entrepreneur.

Born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana, Dr. Oberlies always had an affinity for his science classes, especially chemistry. Coupled with the fact that his hometown was also the headquarter of Eli Lilly, one the largest pharmaceutical companies in the United States, Dr. Oberlies always believed he would be involved in pharmaceuticals after college. Yet, despite all his attempts to work at Eli Lilly, he soon realized that working in the pharmaceutical field didn’t appeal to him. Instead, he was drawn to the idea of combining industry with academia. After spending 11 years at the Research Triangle Institute, Dr. Oberlies fortuitously began working at UNC Greensboro’s newly established Ph.D. program. At UNC Greensboro, Dr. Oberlies satiated his entrepreneurial drive by starting the Oberlies Research Group, which comprises various students and faculty members. All the paths he navigated to arrive at his current position are connected by his penchant for discovery and independence, critical traits of every successful researcher and entrepreneur. “[Researchers] discover new funding. We discover new compounds that can be drugs. And even if they don’t become drugs, they’re new,” says Dr. Oberlies.

Before being as enmeshed in scientific entrepreneurship as he currently is, Dr. Oberlies was unaware of the amount of initiative needed to advance research to the next level. Dr. Oberlies says, “As I get older, I’m ready to push something all the way to becoming a product. I had this misconception when I was in my 20s and 30s that if I discovered something awesome, the pharmaceutical companies would come and find it. But they don’t do that—you’ve got to push it out there and get it as advanced as possible. So much of the scientific entrepreneurship I do is kind of a means to an end. What do we need to get this thing advanced? We need money.”

Outside of obtaining funding, scientific entrepreneurship can take many forms. It may look like unrelenting resilience in the face of many failed trials and experiments. Even better, scientific entrepreneurship could look like working closely with a team towards a common goal. Contrary to the widespread assumption that research is a very isolated field, Dr. Oberlies believes in the power and strength of a cohesive team. “So entrepreneurship, a lot of the time, is working in a team. I like a really tight-knit team; I like a team where everyone has a role, and people have complementary skills,” remarks Dr. Oberlies. This ability to work with a team endears entrepreneurship greatly to Dr. Oberlies. He states, “I like that about entrepreneurship; a lot of times, you’ve got a common goal and a common thing you’re trying to offer. We all put our heads together.” Scientific entrepreneurship can be summed up in a few words: “let’s take it further. Let’s keep pushing it, even if it doesn’t make it.” 

Knowing how important teams are to the success of his work, Dr. Oberlies uses a particular approach to choose the right team members. For one, he looks for researchers with grit and resilience. What’s more, being a member of Dr. Oberlies’ team involves passing the “Drink a Beer Test,” which, in full disclosure, has nothing to do with alcohol! Essentially, the test revolves around this question: “Can you talk to this person about anything besides science?” Dr. Oberlies remarks, “Sometimes it’s about social grace. When building a team, I take them out to dinner and try to answer the question, ‘Can I sit down and have a conversation with them?’” Using these criteria, Dr. Oberlies crafts a team of hard-working people and genuine friends.

With his team secured and ready, Dr. Oberlies ensures that the Oberlies Research group achieves its mission of discovering bioactive compounds in nature. Dr. Oberlies mentions that this process involves “figuring out what is in a medicinal herb that has the potential for therapeutic properties, whether it’s in regards to cancer or malaria. The common theme is the chemistry of nature and its biological effects.” Dr. Oberlies’ group focuses on using nature to influence biology, which is unsurprising considering that most drugs found in pharmacies are derived from nature. Collecting and analyzing hundreds of different fungi samples is a significant task Dr. Oberlies undertakes in his lab. “We can take 100 samples [of fungi] and five of them will affect cancer cells. The other 95 that didn’t, we’ll go test them in something else,” he says. Dr. Oberlies focuses primarily on cancer because a lot of funding is going toward eradicating this illness due to its widespread and insidious nature.

The impact that Dr. Oberlies has made using scientific entrepreneurship proves that this discipline is a valuable part of our society as it seeks to use science to improve the quality of human life. For those considering towing this path, Dr. Oberlies believes that success ultimately comes down to the team you surround yourself with. He says, “There’s so much that has to be done. You can’t get it all done. I often joke that if I spent forty years in my career working by myself, I’d have probably published only 40 papers. But with working in a team, I’ve published more than 200 papers. In a team, there’s something we all bring to the table.”