From PhD to Startup Founder

logo-kimonolabsPratap Ranade is a co-founder of kimonolabs, a startup founded in 2013. He was kind enough to conduct an e-mail interview with us, which we will present in two parts.

BA: Tell us a bit about your career choices: How did you get to where you are now? What kinds of choices did you make along the way? Would you recommend this career to others?

Pratap: I started out as a Physics Ph.D. student. From there I went to work at McKinsey & Company as a management consultant, building my business skillset and traveling to work with clients in 15 different countries. After 5 years at McKinsey, I left to found my own startup with my roommate from graduate school. I would not have been able to predict this career path ahead of time, but have enjoyed it thoroughly and would recommend this choice to others. Of course, there are many paths and to choose the right one for you it’s very important to first understand who you are, what excites you (not just in concept, but in day-to-day execution) and how risk averse you are.

BA: How did you figure out what kind of a change you wanted? How did you decide to leave academia?

Pratap: I decided to leave academia because (a) I had never experienced working outside of a research environment and wanted to know what that was like, (b) I enjoyed the intellectual challenges of academia deeply but was frustrated by the slow pace of progress and my day-to-day experimental routine.

BA: How did you translate the skills you learned in your PhD into marketable skills?

Pratap: Transitioning from my Ph.D. program to McKinsey, I leveraged: (a) my analytical and quantitative modeling skills, (b) my leadership skills from extra-curricular leadership activities – triathlon team and engineers without borders, (c) my ability to take on an independent project, plan it and drive it to completion, and (d) my mentoring/coaching skills from working with undergraduates in lab.

main-thumb-11323439-200-plhkhstdfsoalrvqhfcpfnivtfowlwyiBA: How easy is it to drastically change course after graduation?

Pratap: Some transitions are easy, others are hard. Consulting firms like McKinsey, for example, understand the untapped potential of a Ph.D. and aggressively hire from these programs too (they even have a top-notch 3 week mini-MBA to get Ph.D.s up to speed on basic business fundamentals). These firms serve as a springboard into the business world. Other transitions, for example into specialized engineering fields that require experience that you don’t have, can be more challenging.

BA: What are some things students can learn while in grad school or as a post doc to prepare them for this type of career? Are there any specific activities that you found helpful?

Pratap: A few thoughts – (a) be an expert at whatever you do, this is incredibly valuable even if you leave academia – take on projects, own them, take them to completion, and publish your work, (b) take advantage of being in a university to take on leadership/founding roles for extra-curricular groups that excite you – this could turn into a career path of its own or just demonstrate stronger leadership skills than you could learn from a lab, (c) mix with students and professors from other departments- go out of your way to understand what they do, and for areas you are interested in don’t hesitate to get involved in your spare time.

BA: What are some resources that you can take advantage of while still in grad school?

Pratap: Some of these overlap with my response above – (a) having a student body of talented, motivated people available to you is an asset that you can take advantage on – particularly for starting/leading organizations or groups, (b) having access to other professors and students who are leaders in their fields and open to help/collaboration provides a unique opportunity to get a window into other types of work and potentially get involved with other work, (c) A university affiliation can allow you to build strong external connections with media, companies or organizations relevant to your field, if you want to take initiative and set up events, etc.

BA: Conversely, what are some resources outside of grad school that you wish you had known about?

Pratap: I realize now that many companies, non-profits or open-source communities are more than willing to take on young, motivated folks in an unpaid externship. If you can carve out the time, you may be able to get a role at your dream job as an externship – by doing great work, this can often transition into a full time job opportunity.

(End of Part 1)