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Can tech people be business leaders? Upcoming seminar may have the answer

When Cay Villars worked in marketing for the biotechnology sector, she began to notice a certain pattern: Scientists with a good idea for a new product could find the business world to be a much different place than academia, with a different set of skills required to succeed.

"Along the way, I realized that it was that people dynamic inside a company that could make or break a product just as effectively as a competitor," Villars said. "I got into coaching and understanding the dynamics of human performance. What makes people top performers, and how do they leverage the best of what they have?"

Villars, now the principal consultant at Celebrus Consultants Group, will be leading seminars in that very question at the Leadership In Technology Companies. The seminars, set for Oct. 11 and 13, are being sponsored by the UW Small Business Development Center and will be hosted at the Biotechnology Center Institute on the Promega Corporate Campus in the Madison suburb of Fitchburg.

"We know through our own experience and talking with people, leaders and managers that have a scientific and technical background, they tend to look at things a little differently from a lot of non-technical people," explained Barry Roberts, education program manager for the SBDC. "There are certain challenges with that scientific, technical background when they get into leading people."

The programs will discuss how technologically oriented people can work within their corporate structures to develop their ideas, all the while learning to better function within the business environment.
"We decided, in talking with the small business development center about developing a program like this, people with technical backgrounds do have really good skills that can be leveraged into business," Villars explained, noting strong quantitative aptitude among scientists.

"Putting them together and helping them leverage the skill sets that they have, and then looking at what skills they may not have as strongly," such as social skills within a managerial setting, Villars noted, is especially important to getting new enterprises working and serving the needs of potential investors and customers.

Paul Reckwerdt, founder and president of TomoTherapy in Madison, is something of a case study of a scientist going into business. Though not affiliated with Villars's seminar, he is on the board of advisors and has been a speaker with the UW-Madison School of Business's WAVE program, exploring similar themes. According to Reckwerdt, it is not so much a matter of learning new skills as it is learning to reapply the skills a researcher already has.

For example, writing up a grant proposal and formulating a business plan both have the same goal — to attract capital. Also, working with grad students and lab technicians gives good experience for interacting with employees. The important part is to learn the similarities between different activities and to adjust to the key differences.

That's not to say the transition is necessarily easy. "I got sort of a backhanded compliment from one of our lead venture capitalists," Reckwerdt recalled. "He said, `You know, you're the longest an inventor has ever stayed with any of our companies.'"

Indeed, relearning the financial and social dynamics can present some difficulty, but it is not insurmountable. Since scientists already know how to work with numbers, it need not be too difficult to learn a basic foundation in accounting and keeping track of how the business is running.

Ultimately though, sometimes a scientist must be a scientist, and businessmen should be businessmen, according to Reckwerdt, who has himself hired two different CEOs. In order to have quality outreach to bankers, angel investors and other sources of capital as well as manage the business efficiently, a scientist should always be open to good advice from the outside.

"The advice I always give is: hire the expertise you don't have."

Eric Kleefeld is a writer for WTN in Madison. He can be reached at

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