From Science Outreach to Science Start-Up
Career Story by Dina Markowitz, PhD, President of Science Take Out, and Professor of Environmental Medicine and Director of Life Sciences Learning Ceter at University of Rochester
“Necessity is the mother of invention" is well-known proverb that means, roughly, that the primary driving force for most new inventions is a need. I have found myself smack in the midst of this proverb as my career morphed from bench science to science outreach, to being the founder of a URMC start-up company.
My graduate and post-doctoral training was completed in the late 1980’s, a time of great entrepreneurial boom. I longed to be part of the “business world”, but I felt I lacked any business skills, other than selling magazine subscriptions to fellow students and faculty members to add a little bit of spending money to my meager stipend. Little did I know that two decades later, I would stumble head first into the business world.
I have always been interested in science, but even more interested in creating products that help solve problems. Even my graduate school PhD thesis involved creating products (retroviral packaging cell lines) to solve problems encountered with gene therapy research. I was never the type of researcher who was just interested in beating a molecule to death – I wanted to create stuff.
Fast forward about 20 years….I am happily working here at URMC as the director of the Life Science Learning Center (LSLC) which is a science outreach center that runs hands-on science programs for middle and high school students. We also create hands-on science activities that are used by science teachers all over the country. I work with an awesome group of scientists and science teachers. One of my LSLC colleagues, Sue Holt, is a retired Biology teacher from the Buffalo area. Sue is an expert in what I will call “creative curriculum solutions”. One problem that kept on cropping up with the teachers we worked with was that they were reluctant to do hands-on science activities in their classrooms because they did not have the time or expertise for all the lab prep that was involved.
Sue and I started putting together simple kits of materials for our teachers – to make it easy for them to do hands-on science activities in their own classrooms. Science kits in plastic bags that they could just hand out to their students. No prep, no mess. Our teachers loved the kits! It dawned on us that our science kits might have a broader audience than just the teachers that we were working with through the LSLC.
Neither Sue nor I really remember when we first thought of it, but we realized that our science kits in bags could maybe be the spark of an idea for a possible business. And so, Science Take-Out was born. A fledgling UR start-up company that had its commercial debut in 2008, with 8 different types of “lab-in-a-bag” science kits being made in my kitchen, with materials stored in my basement and laundry room, and shipped out of my garage.
Fast forward to 2017. Science Take-Out is a successful small business, with over a dozen employees. We now sell over 50 different kits, to schools all over the US (and internationally too). A bunch of our kits have been developed directly from the science outreach programs that we do at the LSLC. I moved the company out of my house about 3 years ago, when it was clear that it was taking over the entire Markowitz house. I have certainly learned a TON over the past 8 years about running a business. It has been awesome!
I can tell you more about Science Take-Out, and other fun stuff about combining my work here at URMC with starting up my own business. Please join me for my URBEST Career Story Q&A on February 1 at 11:00 am in the Anderson Room (G-8534). I’ll see you there!