Flexing Their Business Mussels

Geoff Moggridge and David Aldridge are hoping that mussels will make them rich. Their dream came a step nearer to reality last week when their fledgling company, Silver Bullets, carried off first prize--and £20,000--in a business plan competition exclusively for scientists. And along the way, this pair of academics had a unique opportunity to develop and flex their business muscles.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council's (BBSRC's) Bioscience Business Plan Competition grew out of the Biotechnology Young Entrepreneurs Scheme (YES) and was open to all bioscientists at U.K. universities and BBSRC-sponsored institutes, from Ph.D. student through to the most senior academic. It is the first business plan competition run on a national basis in the United Kingdom and the first in the world focusing on the biosciences, claims Doug Yarrow, director of the Business, Innovation, and International Group at BBSRC.

In addition to the potential cash payoff, the competition gave scientists a great opportunity to learn how to commercialise their research. For the first round, entrants had to prepare a two-page summary of their project. The 59 entrants were then whittled down to the 16 most promising projects, and these select few teams were given up to seven free mentoring days to "spend" as they saw fit with volunteer mentors from venture capital, tax, and management consulting organisations. With the help of their mentors, each team prepared a detailed 30-page business plan. A shortlist of five teams was chosen based on the business plan, and the overall winners were chosen following presentations to the judging panel.

During the awards ceremony all the competitors praised the mentoring part of the competition for helping them turn their research into a feasible business. In fact, if it weren't for the competition, the winning company might never have existed. "We'd done a bit of work on this project ... but not with any sort of business thing in mind," explains Geoff, a chemical engineer at the University of Cambridge. When the competition leaflet hit his desk, Silver Bullets was born. So what's the big idea? Feeding Maltesers to mussels.

The company founded by the two researchers aims to help power stations on the Great Lakes in North America deal with their zebra mussel infestation problem. Zebra mussels were accidentally introduced to North America from central Europe and have thrived in their new environment. This is a problem both for the ecosystem and for power stations, which find the intake pipes for their water cooling systems becoming blocked by a vast build-up of mussels. The traditional control method is to flush the pipes with large quantities of chlorine.

But David and Geoff discovered a simpler, and less environmentally toxic, method for clearing out the troublesome molluscs. It turns out that zebra mussels can be tricked into eating a toxin, derived from bananas, by coating the microscopic particle with something yummy--in trials they've been using chocolate, so the end result is a bit like a very small Malteser. Compared to the current method, they estimate that the Silver Bullets system will introduce 1000 times fewer toxins into the lake.

What advice do Geoff and David have to offer other young scientists based on their experience? Geoff says, "when you have a project, think about [developing a business idea] as an option," but "think about it at quite an early stage because obviously once you've published something it's too late." After publication, you lose your opportunity to protect your idea with a patent. And then "go for it!" says David, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge, who further suggests that entering a competition like this one is "an ideal opportunity because there's absolutely nothing to lose."

BBSRC will be running their competition again, and the Natural Environment Research Council has just launched a similar contest. For further information about the Environmental Sciences Business Plan Competition, contact Dr. Chris Miller, NERC Partnerships and Exploitation Policy Directorate, Polaris House, North Star Avenue, Swindon, Wilts, SN2 1EU. Tel 01793 411764, Fax: 01793 444513, E-mail: cmill@nerc.ac.uk. The Bioscience Business Plan Competition is organised by the BBSRC Business and Innovation Unit, business.unit@bbsrc.ac.uk.

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