On committing an unnatural act

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Sandra Porter

A friend of mine; serial entrepreneur, and former president of Genetic Systems; Joe Ashley, told me once that starting a business is an unnatural act.

Now that I've done it, I agree. Even with my multiple back-up plans, possible grants, and part-time activities, my stomach still hurts and my mind is racing. My new company has "spun out" of another. Spinning out of control until you fall down from exhaustion. It's a great metaphor all right.

Sure, there's excitement and adventure. I love my new shiny business cards and my new shiny web site! It's fun to do things that I like and would never get to do otherwise because it might overlap someone's territory. But it is unsettling to put my work and creative efforts at the mercy of the markets. Especially when I have no data to tell me if my business plan will work and I do know that I'm trying to serve a market that always claims to be short of money and might not understand what I'm trying to do.

On the other hand, it's probably best not to talk myself out of this before I've barely begun.

Maybe my dreams are lofty, but as Groucho Marx said: "It's better to have loft and lost than never to have loft at all."

By now, you're might be wondering what on earth I plan to do with the business. Well, there are three main things on my list along with lots of minor ones.

The main I want to do, is to develop instructional materials that help students and researchers use biological data.

Over the years, I've developed a passion for finding ways to use the vast resources of data and information that reside in public databases for exploration and for studying biology.  Some people seem to have this strange idea that using data from a database isn't research, but believe me there are many things waiting to be discovered and novel experiments waiting to be done.

But, here's my dilemma: How do I sell the materials?

I've been spending the past few months debating between writing a textbook and trying another approach. For the moment, I'm going to try micropublishing. That will involve selling short bioinformatics lab activities in a digital form, together with data, software, worksheets, and answer keys.

If all the complaints that I read about over-priced textbooks are more than hot air, instructors might like a low-cost alternative where they can purchase single activities with nice graphics and really cool images. Maybe selling individual activities, for a low price, could be a way to get quality materials into instructors' hands, without putting too great a burden on college or high school economics. At the very least, we could keep kids from developing back problems when they're hauling heavy backpacks.

The other things we'll offer are on-line courses and workshops for teachers and researchers on using bioinformatics. It's fun to share my experience and passion for discovery through direct personal, hands-on teaching and in on-line courses. Maybe I'll even be able to recruit others if there's any kind of demand. Last, there's freelance work writing curriculum for colleges and science articles for other publications. I have been doing some of this already and will probably do more.

In the meantime, I've spent the last couple of months getting everything in place. I did all the licensing things, built a web site, www.DigitalWorldBiology.com and made business cards.

Wish me luck.

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