Marco Masia

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a start-up company

Former Assistant Professor (tenure) in Theoretical Chemistry at the University of Sassari (Italy)

Marco MasiaResearch staff experience

After my PhD I had a short postdoctoral experience and then got tenure at the University of Sassari. I had a lot of flexibility: with not much teaching load I was able to spend time with scientists and professors in many universities in Europe and the US, sometimes for long visits.

Overall, including my PhD, I was an academic researcher for 16 years. I had a decent track record: 52 articles in highly considered international peer reviewed journals – the highlights being Science, the Journal of the American Chemical Society and the Journal of Chemical Physics. I also coordinated international research collaborations and presented results at conferences.

I decided to leave academia primarily because I lost my passion for the work. The job I once loved slowly became a routine where administrative requirements and competition for grants made me first lose focus and then interest. Other factors contributed to the decision; my wife struggled to find a job in Italy and we decided to move to a wealthier and more economically dynamic country (opting for Germany). Also, I have many interests and couldn’t bear the idea of a lifelong attachment to academia.

Transition from academic research

That decision to move on and change career took two years to mature. My main concerns were that I was leaving a permanent job to which I had devoted 15 years of my life – and I was already in my 40s with three kids (so financially demanding).

Making the change was challenging. My ideal job – in policy – is very rare in Germany, and fluent knowledge of the language is required (a requirement I didn’t satisfy). So then I decided to look in the private sector; but coming from theoretical research, the private sector doesn’t offer many opportunities. Therefore, I decided to enrol in an executive MBA course. The MBA opened up the opportunity to work as CEO in a start-up company: a very interesting and challenging experience. Although I was aware of the risks, leading a start-up attracted me, not least because it provided some of the conditions I most enjoyed in my academic career: dealing with intellectually challenging problems; the freedom to organize my own work; and learning new things. 

Current job and how it compares

With a friend I co-founded a company based on an idea for a niche travel app. The business is completely unrelated to my discipline background, yet I have transferred some skills from academia. For example, the methodical, scientific and rigorous approach I brought with me helped produce the business case to present to potential investors, and I have developed algorithms as part of product development.

As CEO of an early stage start-up, I actively work in most operations. Daily life is completely different from academia: the pace is much faster and decisions have to be taken with only partial knowledge of the problem at hand. You can get more of a flavour in this blog post.

Competencies old and new

Of course, deep knowledge of programming and computers has helped me communicate with software developers. Perhaps the researcher skills that have helped me most as CEO are resilience and problem solving. The area where I’ve had most to learn has been business communication.

While the culture shift has been huge, the common thread has been the experimental approach. Researchers apply a scientific method to test their hypotheses; start-ups develop a product testing their ideas about customer needs. This entails an experimentation phase to understand how they could deliver a unique service or product. Many researchers can bring a valuable skill to start-ups: the ability to look at things from a different perspective. This process starts with gathering information, then breaking it down and reorganising it over and over to find the angle that provides insight.

When I left academia I had to learn how to communicate differently. The world of business is based on superficial cues when you talk to investors, customers and providers. As a scientist, I tend to go deep into the details – business doesn’t work like that! Gut feelings and first impressions are very important. Therefore, my communication style and the way I interact in a conversation had to change a lot; I still struggle with it!

A future career shift

Working in a start-up has been very stimulating, but unfortunately the company is struggling at the moment. So now I am looking for new employment.

I tried for a short while to get into science policy, but the opportunities at European level are few and require relocating. Since my wife had found a permanent job and the kids are happy where we live, I have ruled out another major house move.

I’m now looking for jobs in innovation centers – places that support tech start-ups and research spin-offs – where I can make use of all my areas of expertise; working in a start-up, my MBA  and my background in academic science.

Reflections on my career path

In general, my early career path focused on research without considering the ‘outer world’ much. While this was a plus for my research track record, which was very well ranked according to widely accepted impact indices, it was definitely a mistake when it came to changing career.

If I could go back, I would be more open to opportunities to interact with the private sector, maybe by advising SMEs or running joint research projects. I would also be more involved in policy-related issues, both at national and international level. That would have opened some opportunities for me in science policy field.

Looking ahead, I plan to develop a career in an innovative organisation where all my skills and competencies are needed for the job. The main challenge is dealing with German employers; most of them are very traditional and they don’t see the added value of a non-linear career path like mine.


When changing career direction, be prepared for big challenges and some frustration, but also for discovery. If, like me, you are curious about new experiences, there will be rewards for going through the pain of transitioning to a new career.

LinkedIn profile