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Some tips on starting a FRO

Lots of people have approached me recently to ask for advice about how to start a Focused Research Organization. Here are the most important things to pay attention to, in my opinion.

Note: Future House is not part of Convergent Research, and I have not run this advice past Adam or Anastasia. This is general advice for starting a FRO, not specific advice for engaging with Convergent.

Mission: The most important thing is to be clear about what your mission is, and then let the mission guide your decisions. Where should you be located? Who should you hire? How much money should you raise? If you are clear about what your mission is, the answers to these questions should become obvious.

Repeat your mission at every possible opportunity. No one else will believe it if you don’t.

FROs are non-profit, so it only makes sense to start a FRO if your mission is a non-profit mission. Once you have decided what the mission is, be honest with yourself about whether the mission is truly a non-profit mission. “Sequencing the genome” is a non-profit mission, for example. “Making a drug” is a for-profit mission. If you try to do a non-profit mission in a for-profit structure, you will not succeed in raising money. On the other hand, if you try to pursue a for-profit mission in a non-profit structure, you will run into incentive misalignment (see e.g. OpenAI). If you don’t commit to a mission up-front, or if you don’t have conviction in your mission, your decision-making will suffer, and your team will be confused.

I often meet people who want to start FROs because they have some for-profit mission in mind (e.g. cure a disease) but they think the for-profit mission is outside of the timescale of a standard for-profit. FROs can make sense in those cases too, but you should be clear about what you are going to accomplish in the FRO and what you are going to leave to the for-profit later.

Outputs: Once you have your mission, be clear about what your outputs are. Companies output products and shareholder value. Universities output research papers and PhD graduates. As a FRO, you have to decide what your outputs are going to be. Are you outputting patents? Technology demos? Datasets? Repositories? How will your outputs further your mission?

Once you decide, only hire people who want to be producing those outputs. If your FRO’s primary output is going to be an amazing new dataset and you have a candidate with a ton of relevant experience who wants to be shipping products to customers, don’t hire them. They will take you in directions you do not want to go. You will have to let them go.

Common trap here: if you decide you are outputting products, why aren’t you a company?

Culture: Be intentional about the kind of culture you want to have. Figure out a few principles that you think should drive the way you work. Then, once you have figured them out, repeat them at every opportunity, just like your mission.

And remember that culture is an experiment, just like any other experiment. Brainstorm some ideas, try a few of them, see what sticks and what doesn’t.

Talent: Make sure you are hiring people who are the best in the world for the job you want them to do. Some of the best advice I ever got is that past performance is the best predictor of future performance. If you need someone who can build a high-throughput data collection pipeline, for example, hire someone who has built an amazing data collection pipeline previously. If you need someone who can publish papers in Nature and Science, hire someone with a track record of publishing papers in Nature and Science. This might sound obvious, but people coming from academia are used to hiring students, who have little experience or track record, if any. It certainly wasn’t obvious for me.

When it comes to attracting talent, FROs need to leverage their missions. They don’t have equity, and they aren’t focused on producing individual outputs like research papers, but FROs get to sell the ability to work on big, important missions in a startup-like environment, and that is unique and differentiated. Some people won’t join because they want equity, and other people won’t join because they want to build an academic empire, and that’s fine; those people aren’t the right fit.

You also need to pay your people well. You will probably pay them significantly more cash than they would get in a startup, but that will be offset by a lack of equity.

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