After Mixing Science and Business, Success is Elemental

How can physics increase profit? What does cash-flow have to do with microbiology? “The Scientist as Entrepreneur” panel discussion, co-hosted by the Center for Regional Economy and the School of Science, featured three distinguished scientists-turned-businessmen to answer these questions and speak about the intriguing, oftentimes  complementary, relationship between science and business.

(Lef to Right) John Macken, Gint Federas, Thomas LokerFor over an hour and a half, panelists Thomas Loker, John Maken ’62 and Gint Federas MBA ’03 chronicled how their educations and careers fluctuated between the seemingly antithetical disciplines. Fielding questions from moderator Berna Aksu, as well as students, faculty and staff, all three panelists repeatedly articulated the advantage of being able to combine scientific curiosity and business savvy.

“I interviewed to be a consultant after earning my MBA,” said Federas, who earned a B.S. in biochemistry and a B.A. in psychology from UCLA as an 18 year-old before eventually graduating from the Executive MBA Program at Saint Mary’s in 2003.“I just had the magical combination of having the background in science, having an MBA and having some work experience. I got the job and went to work for a publically traded company that had filed for bankruptcy. I had the exact tools needed at exactly the right time. Since then I’ve worked with start-ups and turn-arounds, companies which need to be run with innovation and on very limited budgets.”

“Business seemed so foreign to me,” said Loker about being put in charge of a college bookstore shortly after graduating from Georgetown with a biology degree. “I didn’t think about the business the same way that I would have if I had gone to business school. I thought about it as a living organism. As a microbiologist you know that organisms are not simple cause and effect issues. They’re multi-variant, asymmetrical and non-linear. I used those skills to understand business and it actually gave me an edge because we were looking at things in an innately out-of-the-box way. It was a different way to view business, and it was a tremendous benefit.”

For all three panelists, scientific acumen came before business success.

John Macken“Some people have many talents and they have a great choice of what they want to do,” said Macken, who graduated from Saint Mary’s in 1962 with a degree in physics. “I gravitated towards science as kid because it was the only thing I was any good at.”

This sentiment was echoed by both Loker, who described himself as “being born with biology in my genes,” and Federas, who had childhood dreams of growing up to be the real life Doogie Houser.

“What science training gave me was the curiosity and creativity to approach a problem differently,” said Federas. “When I first started out, I didn’t think the MBA had any value to it. MBAs were the guys who came in and made mistakes.”

It wasn’t until the mechanics of business and the lack of control points became overwhelming that Federas saw the merits of the MBA. “What the MBA gave me was the analytical tools to see if ideas were viable. Sometimes the analytics can be overwhelming and you can fall into an analytic paralysis. With the MBA I was able to moderate what my ideas were, isolate what the problems were and then apply the appropriate tools and statistics to see if what we were doing was making any sense,” he said.  

Federas, Loker and Macken all spoke about how valuable the ability to shift between perspectives has been in their paths to success.

“One of the traps you fall into when you’re in the trenches of business is you think that having the answer is important,” said Loker. “So you go out and you get an answer, just any answer. The problem is, you end up finding an answer to a question that shouldn't be asked. The key is the question. The key in business and in science is the question. Getting an answer is a process—and you’ll get an answer—but if you get an answer to the wrong question or you don’t think critically about what the right question is, your business will fail. Science has trained me to look for the right questions.”