Conferences are great for scientific entrepreneurs

Indiana Jones lecture
Attend his talk if he's giving one

Scientific conferences are great even if you’re an outsider to the field. That's common advice for students, and there are useful guides written on how to get the most out of conferences you're new to. But I suspect people at all career stages could benefit from hearing the advice again – people with adjacent research experience in industry or academia, or who have started organisations before, or who have an inkling something exciting lurks around the corner.

In other words, I wish people reminded me to go to conferences as an outsider more often. I seem to re-learn their value with wonder every one I attend. So here is a post for you, future Jacob.

Often scientific fields host annual conferences that have been running for a decade, or many decades. People grumble about the schedule and the snacks. Jetlag is a daze. The hotels nearby are expensive and the bedroom ceilings are low. Whatever you do, you are always missing something – talks, meeting people you could have emailed ahead of time, bottomless mingling. If you haven't attended previous years of the conference, you feel like a foreigner in a land where everyone else is old friends. For new timers and old timers alike, the days are exhausting.

That's all a sign it's working! (Apart from the bedroom ceilings, those are just bad.)

Conferences are dense informational and social experiences. One half-hour presentation may contain data from two years of experiments, or from a clinical trial involving three thousand participants. The next presentation may be so cool you decide to change what you're working on. You may meet someone you go on to write a paper with, or who wants to hire you in three years, or who you end up collaborating with for decades.

(Collaboration can take many forms, and I should disclose my existential bias here. My mother and father met at a mathematics conference in Texas.)

To the best of my understanding, I only have one life to live

but if you gave me more I'd spend some of them looping through these nine steps:

  1. Scrounge together a plane ticket and discount entry to a conference on a scientific topic I'm interested in. Bonus points if it's in a city I've never been to. (Check with the conference organisers whether they have travel grants available.)
  2. Attend a day of presentations and write down at least two questions for the presenters whose talks I found most interesting. Wander through the poster sessions and try to come up with one question for anyone whose poster title looks interesting.
  3. Work up the nerve to approach the presenters. (One and a half beers is often my trick, but you may have your own.) Tell them I liked their talk or poster, and ask them the first question. See where it goes.
  4. Collapse in bed and pat myself on the back.
  5. The week after, sit down for a few hours with some of the papers of the people I talked to who I have the best feeling about. Chat to GPT-4 or Claude 3 about the ideas in the papers as I go, and ask for explanations of the terminology I don't understand. Jot down some ideas for alternate interpretations of the data, or objections to the argument, or how you could take the ideas in the paper further – what experiments would you run next?
  6. Follow up by email with whoever's work I find myself thinking about the most, and ask if I could visit their lab for a day or three some time.
  7. If they say yes, make myself unobtrusive and perhaps even useful during the day, and chat over lunch. Ask if there’s anything they wish they could take into application that isn’t a great fit for academic research. Meet the postdocs and grad students in the lab, and chat as much as they're in the mood for. Ask what they're working on. Ask what they're thinking of doing next.
  8. Whichever lab member I most hit it off with, suggest working on a project together for a week in coffee shops. Splice in some long walks and talk about our dreams and fears.
  9. If that week gets the heart pounding, look the person in the eyes. Wish each other luck. Then start a company together – for profit or non-profit – to work on something no one else in the world is doing.

The birth of organisations is only one of the happy ways this loop can close. Going up to step #7 may get you a coauthor for a future paper, a collaborator on a future grant, or some new friends. It's an excuse to dabble in something new and interesting, whether or not you have the entrepreneurial disease.

If you are a student, try to get the conference or your professor to pay for #1. If you have a job, take a couple vacation days, or try to convince your employer step #1 is in their interest. If you are an employer, give yourself permission to go to conferences further afield from your existing work, and let people on your team do the same. What goes around comes around.

But I'm an outsider to the field!

Insiders need you as much as you need them. There is an indefinite supply of ideas worth exploring that never make it beyond a research paper. Professors don’t have the time or, often, inclination to do several years of grunt work to turn a result into a first prototype or product, to raise more money, to hire staff scientists, to divide up work across a team, to request meetings with regulators…

The field needs you too: often the best new ideas combine disparate old ideas from multiple fields, and adjacent knowledge is useful for innovation.

New things happen when outsiders and insiders pair up. Robert Swanson and Herb Boyer founded Genentech, the world’s first biotechnology company, when Swanson was working at a venture capital firm, became fascinated by recombinant DNA, and reached out to Boyer (book telling this story; my review). Conception was started when Matt Krisiloff left Y Combinator Research, attended some conferences in reproductive health, and flew to a leading stem cell lab in Fukuoka, Japan where he met then-postdoc Pablo Hurtado. They began working together and recruited co-founder Bianka Seres from a lab in Cambridge, England.

By definition, everyone starts as an outsider. Attend conferences with a listening air, and don't try to dominate them. There is a reason step #3 above involves approaching someone 1:1 with your questions, not asking them in the Q&A. Your first two questions on a topic don't have to be great. If you go in trying to learn, most people are receptive and many are excited. If they're not, move on.

List of 41 conferences

Here are some conferences on important problems:

Here is a longer list of 41 conferences taking place in 2024 that my colleague Alex Bowles put together, on topics of interest to the Open Philanthropy R&D team. Some are about science policy, not just science. Most will be attended by at least one of us. Say hi if you come.

Here are the Keystone Symposia and Gordon Research Conferences coming up.

If you go to a conference outside your field for the fun of it, or start a company following something like the playbook above, I’d love to hear about it.

Thanks to Matt Krisiloff and Heather Youngs for comments/corrections