EMERYVILLE, CALIF.—Six-packs of Budweiser and individual bottles of Coors, Michelob, and Miller line a laboratory shelf in the Aquanautics corporate headquarters. But they’re for work, not play. Scientists at the young firm hope that the beers will prove to be Aquanautics’ savior—transforming a company founded on a pipedream to a company thriving on innovation. If they have their way, Aquanautics’ 14 scientists will guarantee us fresher-tasting beers.

Why do we care? Not because we’re bored with our brew but because the lesson of Aquanautics’ survival is one that many entrepreneurial scientists never learn. Like many a startup, this San Francisco-based firm was born out of a narrow-cast vision: to engage in nautical research. In fact, the original scientific dream for Aquanautics was to develop an artificial gill for undersea exploration. But shortly after establishing this goal, the real world of dollars and cents threatened to drown the venture. First came...

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