Slaying Villains Outside The Ivory Tower
Lessons on leaving academia
Just over a year ago, I left academia. I had been in that realm for 25 years, working in musculoskeletal biomechanics and human movement analysis. It was a move that might have surprised anyone who knew me as a child, as well as many who watched me through my career. Yet the transition has been smooth and rewarding, and harbors hints of a lesson for others.
The story begins at age eight with my stated intent to become a professor. What I really meant was the stereotypical absent-minded professor of European comic books: I dreamed of inventing cool gadgets to help defeat the villains.
Eventually I became a real professor. I enjoyed the mix of research and teaching, and didn’t mind the additional reality of “publish or perish.” But as this evolved into “get more grants or perish,” I began to wonder whether input or output was more important to our academic institutions. And when would I get to defeat the villains anyway?
I became more interested in an alternative lifestyle after doing some private consulting. A rather typical scenario would proceed as follows: The client explains a need; I propose a solution and write a two-page proposal with a budget; a contract is signed; work begins; and in the next year, my software is used in a product that disrupts the industry.* This was tremendously refreshing, compared to waiting nine months for a (possibly negative) decision on a grant proposal. And it felt much more like my dream of inventing cool gadgets. But small disruptive projects do not fit well within the current business model of academic research, where we are encouraged to have large teams, large grants with high indirect costs, and graduate students who do the work over five years.
So when I left academia to start a small business in computational biomechanics, the decision was easier than you might expect. Many things wouldn’t change: I could still get NIH funding (as a small business); teach graduate students (as an adjunct); and publish (if I avoided contracts with unreasonable restrictions and set my fees high enough to have time to write). And I figured I could out-compete others in this niche (mostly graduate students and postdocs such as those I used to train) while remaining competitive through continuous improvement of my capabilities.
In biomedical computing, it’s actually possible for an individual or small business to be at the cutting edge of research. To some extent, that’s because they can collaborate with academic investigators, as I’ve continued to do (mostly through the Simtk.org collaborative platform). Sometimes academics have expertise or laboratory facilities that I do not have, or they need my expertise. Funding for such collaborations is available, and I believe they provide an increasingly viable model for biomedical research, resulting in high-quality work and a win-win situation for all parties. Most importantly, the independent “comic book” scientist can enjoy the freedom to quickly and efficiently invent cool gadgets and slay a few villains.
* In 2005, I received a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for work with Motion Analysis Corp. (Santa Rosa, CA). This was a consulting project that resulted in software to generate realistic 3-D human animations from motion capture data.
Antonie (Ton) J. van den Bogert is President of Orchard Kinetics, a startup company doing computational musculoskeletal biomechanics R&D, based in Cleveland, Ohio. Previous positions were at the University of Calgary and the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute. Ton is well-known as the moderator of Biomch-L, a mailing list and social network for biomechanists, which has existed since 1988 and now has more than 10,000 members. He co-founded the Technical Group on Computer Simulation of the International Society of Biomechanics (ISB) in 1989, and is currently the president of the ISB. As a pioneer in musculoskeletal modeling and simulation, he has held a collaborating R01 grant with Simbios, and currently serves on the Scientific Advisory Board of Simbios.