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How We Built an Etsy for Scientists and Earned $3M+ in a Year

Shuhan He is an academic emergency medicine physician in Massachusetts, with years of experience in practicing research science. His regular job involves taking care of patients, and he loves doing it. However, his own struggles when conducting scientific research prompted him to spend his own time founding a company that creates and distributes scientific equipment.

Conduct Science is a company thatmakes technology transfer tools for science, like an ‘Etsy’ for scientists. Everything we distribute from hardware neuroscience mazes to virtual reality equipment is given our stamp of approval and originated in academia, where we support and translate things that come from universities where our brightest minds originate. We give scientists an outlet to be creators, artists, and makers.

Was it a gradual decision or lightbulb moment to start Conduct Science?

It certainly wasn’t born out of thin air, and didn’t appear to me in a dream! It was a vision formed after years of conducting my own science, and realizing that most of the equipment available to me was simply sub-par. In addition to that, I was spending most of my own time creating mazes and other equipment, rather than actually collecting data and testing my hypotheses. I also, learnt most researchers, had no outlet to make things. All I ever did was publish and write, instead of seeing real products get created that would have an impact on this world. I realized other scientists needed that same outlet.

I wanted to be able to help scientists everywhere be rewarded for the things they created.

How did you get your first three customers?

In 2012, when I first purchased the domain for Conduct Science, I ensured that I had one strong collection of mazes before pushing forward with other types of equipment. My first customers came about because they saw (a division of Conduct Science), and believed in the quality of the mazes I had spent three or four years producing for the website.

After building a following of several scientists who believed in Conduct Science because of the great mazes, I was able to branch out into other divisions.

How did you validate the idea?

Fortunately, a principle that I will never waver from when it comes to Conduct Science is the bootstrapping of my business. This means that I allow the business to grow using its own revenue, without relying on outside investment.

As well as giving me more freedom to operate as I see fit, I never had to prove profitability and ‘validate’ Conduct Science to other parties. Internally, my idea was validated as soon as I saw other scientists conducting better science as a result of purchasing equipment from Conduct Science.

Who is your target demographic?

Naturally, active research scientists are my target demographic. There are people of all ages practicing science, so my company is not restricted by age range. We tend to target scientists who belong to large research organizations as they have extensive intellectual property portfolios that never get translated into real world inventions. We help guide researchers through the process with their technology transfer offices and advocate for them and their inventions.

Where did you meet your supporting team?

Currently, I employ around 25 people and a team of freelancers who help me to manage my projects. I have never met the majority of my team, as we work together remotely using tools like Slack. I believe having an entirely remote organization means a faster, more agile organization.

The trust I have in my team to perform their tasks is crucial, as it allows me to focus on other parts of the business. Additionally, I am lucky enough to be able to invest some of the money made from emergency medicine back into my business. Almost everyone starts off as a freelancer in some capacity and then moves into larger roles. That's the thing with hiring, the best predictor of performance and people who add to a culture are people who perform and bring positive culture. It’s just not something you can interview for.

What motivated you to start your own business?

I actually enjoy problem-solving, and searching for the right solutions to complex problems on a system wide scale. I suppose that’s why I’m a scientist! I think that these skills transfer really well to business, especially for one like Conduct Science which exists to solve a range of problems in the world of scientific tools.

It goes without saying that I find science fascinating, which is why I hold an academic title and practice emergency medicine. Having a passion for my field made it easy to find the motivation to set up Conduct Science.

What makes you stand out against competitors?

One measure we took to help make ourselves stand out from the crowd was to try and establish an ‘easy-access IP’ style of tech transfer for our equipment. The likes of our results-based tools which measure scientific outcomes, are not as well patented as other mechanism-based tools.

We want our ease of sharing to help us stand out from the crowd. We make the effort to negotiate deals with the organizations that create tools we want to sell - these allow us to transfer the technology to other scientists.

What motivates you when things go wrong?

As mentioned previously, we are a bootstrapped business. This means that I am growing Conduct Science with its own revenue. Thinking about how far I’ve taken the business with its own revenue gives me the motivation needed to pick things up after a bad day at the office.

Secondly, I don’t have investor funds to fall back on. I know that the only way for Conduct Science to see more revenue is to genuinely please its customers, and provide fantastic experiences for scientists that buy from us.

Do you have any advice for someone just starting out with business?

Certainly, I’d like to say two things. Always focus on the customer experience, and if there are measures you can take to ensure that happens, then that’s great. For me, it was bootstrapping the business.

Similarly, don’t focus too much on venture capital revenue if you don’t have to. It’s always best to remain grounded and build your business with your own funds. This way, you have no expectant investors to report back to. This helps you grow at a pace that is healthy for your organization.Always consider if you truly need an office, or if you can be a remote organization. There are huge benefits to remote and digital freedom for employees that give you a big hiring advantage.

What is stopping you being 3x the size you are now?

As touched upon, our focus is on building and distributing great scientific tools to our customers. If that prevents us from growing rapidly, then so be it. The nature of scientific research and life sciences is very slow. This means that new research takes years to be conducted and approved, so the evolution of scientific tools doesn’t exactly happen overnight. We grow at the pace of our customers.

We also want to find amazing talent to help Conduct Science grow, which takes time. We don’t make do with anyone - we search for the best experts in each field.

What are the next products you’re working on?

Conduct Science is rapidly growing its number of divisions, and it’s very exciting. Complementing our existing base of mazes and virtual reality equipment are other impressive tools like drones and technology that ‘translates’ scientific jargon so it is easily understandable. It’s all pulling together to become a reliable base for all kinds of scientific equipment!

What are the top 3-5 apps your business couldn’t run without?

Here goes:

  • Slack and Asana are both fantastic communication and organization tools. They’re pretty widely used, so I won’t explain exactly how they work, but they are the lifeblood of a pretty remote team like that of Conduct Science.
  • Google Analytics.This tool helps me to better understand the behavior of visitors to the Conduct Science website. It’s crucial for me to understand where they click, and which tools receive the most attention.
  • Healthmate. Tracking my fitness and regularly going to the gym is really important for me. Physical fitness means better mental agility and well-being, which is vital to the success of Conduct Science.

What is your current revenue?

Unfortunately, revenue cannot be disclosed due to government contracting regulations. However, I’m pleased to share that we aim for 50% year-on-year growth and are on target to achieve that! What I can disclose is a range, and we do between 3-10 million in revenue in 2019 with an expected 50% year to year revenue growth rate.

We are working with over 500 partners to design scientific tools, so the only way is up. Our aim is to go public within the next 5-10 years!

And finally… would you ever sell Conduct Science?

I am positive that I would never sell Conduct Science - I am passionate about science and I would always want to be involved in the company’s evolution.

If the right circumstances ever arose, I would be willing to consider giving up a minority equity stake in the company in order to get more fantastic personnel on the team to help Conduct Science grow.

Company Name: Conduct Science
Founder: Shuhan He



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