I want to be a chemical doctor, who makes medicines to help people feel better, and a businessman. This is what three-year-old Nicholas Speller, Evening MBA '24, told his mom he wanted to do when he grew up.
What he couldn't know at the time was he would not only work towards fulfilling his dream of achieving these goals, but he would embark on an academic journey that would include undergraduate degrees in Biology and Chemistry from Morehouse College, a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from Louisiana State University, where he studied under Isiah M. Warner, and an MBA from the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business.
Speller chose his undergraduate concentrations because of his interest in medicine and research, and he thought it would help him prepare for pursuing an M.D./Ph.D., a dual degree that combines medical education with biomedical research training.
While earning his Ph.D. at LSU, he received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship, published several peer-reviewed journal articles, and in 2016, he obtained his Ph.D. and considered what he wanted to do next.
In the process, Speller visited Georgia Tech as a part of the Georgia Tech Focus Fellows Program and unexpectedly met his future postdoctoral advisor, Amanda M. Stockton. In her lab, he was introduced to Astrobiology, as well as microfluidics and portable analytical system development. During this time, he applied for and won a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellowship in Astrobiology.
As his postdoctoral fellowship concluded, Speller sought an applied research role that would enable him to utilize his research skills on complex real-world problems that have tangible impacts on human lives. As a result, he joined the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) as a senior research scientist and worked on projects ranging from COVID-19 surveillance to portable prototype development.
Three weeks after his start at GTRI in February 2020, the pandemic hit, and over the next few months, Georgia Tech and GTRI became actively involved in COVID-19-related response efforts.
"Due to supply shortages, sample processing inefficiencies, and discomfort associated with nasal swabs, we started looking at developing saliva-based assays. We collected samples from volunteers at drive-through testing sites for initial assay validation," Speller said. "It had been several years since I'd done any medical-related projects, and being on the front lines took me from the lab to working with people directly to solve healthcare problems in real time," he recalled.
He remembers when he started thinking about business. Covid resources were scarce, and he began focusing on supply chain and procurement. He and his colleagues also got involved in the development and operation of the Georgia Tech Surviellance Testing Program. During the development of the test kit production capacity, they realized they needed to scale up their test kit production based on overwhelming demand and went from making around 1,000 kits a day to over 3,000 kits a day. Speller and a colleague started focusing on operations and created spreadsheets to determine the production times, procurement costs, and how efficient personnel, tools, and processes had to be to meet production quotas. They quickly discovered they needed more help.
"I remember thinking we need more people to meet this demand, so suddenly we went from managing a handful of people to managing a team of 10 or so, multiple robots, printers, scanners and developing an inventory tracking and storage method on the fly. It quickly became like running and managing a mini-production center. I knew nothing about management but was open to learning more, and timing-wise, it was perfect," he recalled.
As a Tech employee, Speller utilized Georgia Tech's Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and applied to the Evening MBA program.
"You start hearing these business buzzwords in science that you didn't think about as a graduate student or postdoctoral researcher, but they start popping up everywhere, whether it's trying to come up with budgets, spend plans, pitch decks or understanding contracting, project management, NDAs or colors of money. I quickly understood that if you're going to advance your career you have to have a better understanding of the business that underlies the science," he stated.
While reviewing Evening MBA curriculum options, something caught his eye – the TI:GER program. TI:GER, Technology Innovation Generating Economic Results, is a 12-credit hour program that provides hands-on experience in innovation and entrepreneurship, offering Full-time and Evening MBA students the opportunity to earn a STEM concentration and allowing Georgia Tech Ph.D. students from the Colleges of Computing, Engineering, and Sciences to apply their credit hours towards a minor.
"From going through the TI:GER program, I discovered that the entrepreneurship process in particular - developing an innovative product, identifying market segments, figuring out a persona, looking for who you need to interview and what kinds of questions you need to ask in informational interviews, or developing a pitch deck – all of these processes are similar to how you identify research gaps, develop novel solutions, find sponsors and pitch to land funding in the applied research space," he said.
For some people, jumping from years of working in research and development to the business world would seem daunting. But Speller has it covered.
"I don't know that you must have a specific background to be in the TI:GER program. Obviously, if you know more about business, things are easier for you, but I'm completely new to business, and it's presented in a digestible way that you can learn it. You must be willing to dig in and deal with the discomfort of not knowing or understanding. That can be difficult for some, but entrepreneurship doesn't necessarily come with a recipe book," he noted.
The TI:GER program introduced him to frameworks for thinking about entrepreneurship, provided practice working through the entrepreneurial process, and helped him understand how the skills he has cultivated through research can be leveraged in the business arena. Furthermore, he looks forward to the opportunity to engage with healthcare related entrepreneurs and start-ups through the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) Advanced Therapies Stream.
Over the last few years, Speller moved up the ranks as a research scientist at GTRI, and continued coursework in the MBA program but never lost sight of his interest in medicine. As a result, he studied for the MCAT and began applying to medical schools, all while working full-time and completing MBA coursework.
Earlier this year, he was accepted to medical school and has decided to attend the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis on a full-ride merit scholarship, where he began his coursework in September. Ever the scholar, he is doing this while finishing his Evening MBA studies, with an expected graduation in May 2024.
Three-year-old Speller would be proud. A chemical doctor who makes medicines to help people feel better, and a businessman. He never lost sight of his goals and is now well on his way to achieving his next step towards them.