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How to become an 'edupreneur'

Setting up shop as a science communicator after getting your degree in physics is a tempting offer, especially for those who are interested in creating educational outreach materials, as Alaina G Levine finds out.

In the course of getting your physics degree, you probably had the opportunity to engage in some form of outreach in your department or institution. Did it light a fire in you? For many physics-educated professionals, the idea of science outreach and communication is no passing fad – instead it's a suitable career option. After leaving university, they set up companies that promote science, some of which aim at providing educational material in a myriad of forms.

Entrepreneurial careers that focus on physics education and outreach are as diversified as you would expect for any non-traditional physics career path. They span different sectors as innovators identify specific market needs and explore ways in which they can add value. Some educational entrepreneurs – or "edupreneurs" – focus on developing curriculum and training teachers, while others are specialists in pedagogical science techniques.

Some are geared towards science shows, producing demonstrations that delight and educate audiences of multiple ages. Some start-ups keep it simple, with a single individual working in the enterprise, while others look to grow and expand in new ways. These entrepreneurs can choose to incorporate their companies into for-profit agencies that produce products and services full time; or they may keep their work segmented as a freelance and non-profit organization. The bottom line is that there are limitless avenues to achieve success and buoy your bottom line in the STEM education arena.

Take Australian physicist, author of Big Fat Myths – a book about the physics of weight loss – and professional speaker Ruben Meerman. His science-outreach business is a one-man-shop in which he writes, produces and presents science-themed shows at schools throughout Australia. After graduating with a bachelors in physics from Queensland University of Technology in 1993, Meerman worked in industry, designing and manufacturing thin-films before pursuing a graduate diploma in science communication from Australia National University in 1995. As part of his programme, he toured the country presenting science demonstrations at schools. The outreach bug bit him and he was hooked. Soon after completing his course, he contacted Griffith University's School of Environmental Science and suggested he help them develop outreach programmes. "I happened to call the right person at the right time," he says, highlighting three major factors for success in entrepreneurship – asking for opportunities, suggesting partnerships and a small helping of luck. The person he approached took him up on his offer. Within about six months, the university was supporting his outreach efforts, and he expanded his business. Today, his brand is known throughout the nation and beyond as the "Surfing Scientist" and Meerman presents numerous science-themed shows each year for primary and secondary schools, as well as other science-themed events.

Since launching a business is no mean feat, many edupreneurs may start off freelancing or working part-time before they mature their enterprise. Stephanie Chasteen has a PhD in physics and works part-time at the University of Colorado Boulder in its physics-education research group where she concentrates on STEM-education reform initiatives. But she also runs her own organization, Chasteen Educational Consulting, which provides external evaluation, pedagogical workshops, video production and other services to support educational change in science. "I treat myself like a freelance academic," she says. A freelance writer for many years, she found her path as an edupreneur when she asked a colleague if she could assist on a science-education project. "I realized I could be an agent of change by helping the national education scene by being an external evaluator, and giving the kinds of critical but supportive feedback people need in order to create educational programmes." One evaluation led to another and her business flourished. "There was a point recently where I said holy mackerel, people will pay me for this, and that this is very satisfying."

Wendy Sadler, an astrophysicist in the UK, launched a non-profit venture in 2002 that has now grown to include more than a dozen employees. She is founding director of Science Made Simple, a social enterprise based in Cardiff with a focus on inspiring the next generation of STEM professionals through school performances and training programmes. She and her team collaborate primarily with schools and teachers in the UK, while Sadler herself still holds a lectureship at Cardiff University in science communications. Her eureka moment came as she was finishing her degree in physics and music, also at Cardiff, and she took a job in science outreach. "It changed my whole outlook," Sadler admits. "I didn't know there were places like that which were trying to change people's attitudes about science and tap into helping teach science in a way that they could explore it. I realized this could be a proper job and I could love it."

So how do you get started? Begin by doing your research. Learn as much as you can about the edupreneurship sector. Speak to leaders in the field and examine their business models. Find out how these business people actually make their money. What do they sell and to whom do they sell it? And what marketing techniques do they employ? Don't forget to allow time to develop marketing and sales tactics that work for you and your industry. For example, when it comes to working with teachers and school districts, having a relationship with them before such a partnership starts is vital – begin networking at STEM education conferences and get to know the teachers, principals, and researchers. When Simon Crook moved to Sydney from the UK, he had already been a teacher for eight years and had dabbled in the e-learning space. Once in Australia, he landed a job as a physics teacher. He then completed his PhD on using technology in science education and took on an e-learning role with a district administration responsible for 150 schools. By the time he was ready to unveil his company, CrookED Science, he was known in the field and was welcomed into schools. His prime directive these days is teaching teachers how to use technology in their own classrooms to enhance the STEM educational experience for students.

Entrepreneurship is challenging and difficult. We all wish that our first entrepreneurial venture will be a winner like Facebook, but the odds of that happening are minute. So be realistic and strategic in your planning, and have a back-up plan. "Don't expect to make enough money to pay off the mortgage in the first couple of years," says Meerman. "You have to have more than one string to your bow." But for those who stick it out and keep that fire burning, the benefits are delightful, surprising and immeasurable.

"You've got to remember why you're doing it," says Sadler. "I sometimes struggle with the financial and HR issues, but I can't lose track of being in the trenches. It's about spending time to connect with the audience and remembering what got you involved in the first place. I don't do as many shows myself anymore, so now for me the reward is seeing how I develop other people and the effects they can have. This is just as rewarding to me as getting the applause myself and that's even more satisfying because I have a legacy – which sums up that what we are trying to do is something bigger than ourselves."

AUTHOR Alaina G Levine is a science careers writer and author of Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015). Based in Tucson, Arizona, US, she is an award-winning entrepreneur and previously taught entrepreneurship to science and engineering graduate students at the University of Arizona