A Head for Business?

Fed up with life at the bench but still love research? Interested in the business world but not sure how to bridge the gap between academia and commerce? A career in the growth area of commercialisation could be for you.

Commercialisation (or technology transfer) is the exploitation of science and technology to create wealth. This process involves the use of intellectual property, generated within universities and research institutions, in a way that directly stimulates new economic activity while reaping financial rewards for the originating institution. As resources and budgetary restrictions become tighter, the need to become self-financing is greater, so it's not surprising that technology transfer departments are a booming employer in universities and colleges. The Research and Enterprise Department at Glasgow University is a leader in this field, and in the past 2 years they have doubled their personnel to become a 54-member team working across a range of disciplines.

Cathy Garner, head of research and enterprise at Glasgow University, says that the challenge for her department is to encourage a culture change within academia by increasing commercial awareness. The people charged with this task are the commercialisation managers, who come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Many have business degrees, but due to the need for specialist knowledge, some also have science or engineering degrees and a proven track record in research in their field. However, Garner believes that it is essential to have acquired business awareness, either by having worked in commerce or by attaining a postgraduate qualification such as an MBA.

Commercialisation managers (CMs) are usually assigned to work with academics in one particular Faculty. Alasdair Street is the CM for the Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences Planning Unit at Glasgow University. After a biochemistry degree, Ph.D., and several postdoctoral jobs in cancer research, Alasdair decided to embark on a 1-year Master of Science in Technology Management at Stirling University. While he found the course to be invaluable in his new position, he says, "there is a lot of learning on the job and there is no such thing as a typical day." John O'Dowd, CM for the Veterinary Planning Unit at Glasgow, concurs with this sentiment. He has a Ph.D., a strong background in biomedical research, and he also lectured in a local college. Disheartened by the disproportionate time spent in teaching rather than research, he undertook a 1-year MBA course at Strathclyde University. This is an intensive course, which covers all aspects of business such as accountancy, economics, and marketing. John says, "I loved every minute of the MBA course, even accountancy, which surprised me coming from a science background."

The first job of the CM is to identify ideas that are worth patenting. This involves deciding whether the idea is "novel," "useful," and whether there is an aspect of inventiveness. While the CM has to be a generalist who understands a bit about patent law and licensing, their main role is to put forward a cogent business case. The nitty-gritty of patenting and licensing is carried out by legal specialists and patent agents employed by the university. If, for example, an academic discovers a new drug, the CM will oversee the patent application and is responsible for identifying an appropriate business partner, such as a pharmaceutical company, which can manufacture the product. The company obtains a license, which allows it to exploit the information in the patent. In return the company provides the university with a royalty income, based on sales of the product. The license may define some specific business targets which, if unfulfilled, can result in the license being revoked. The aim of the CM is to negotiate the best business deal, which maximises income generated for the university.

Sometimes the route of commercialisation may be through the generation of a "spin-out" company. For instance, if a drug is discovered which spawns a whole generation of drugs, this could be the basis for a new company. Again the CM will be involved in identifying a business partner, with the requisite skills to create the new company, and in negotiating an equity stake in the company for the university. This year, Glasgow has spun out six new companies.

John says that there are a lot of transferable skills that a scientist can bring to work in commercialisation, such as analytical, presentation, networking, and time management skills and the ability to think laterally. A lot of time is spent meeting and talking to academics and potential business partners. The latter are identified by researching databases and the Internet, as well as by utilising knowledge of the local commercial scene.

So if you think that these are skills which you possess and feel that commercialisation might be for you, start thinking about how to attain the requisite business skills. One route may be to identify a good business course, preferably an MBA, which will cover business planning and management, financial management, and marketing. Obviously the financial implications of taking a year out of paid employment have to be considered. Alasdair and John got career development loans from the bank in order to finance their year of study, but both feel it was worth the hardship. They are happy to have found a job with such variety, where every day presents a new and interesting challenge.

Editor's Note: If you think a career in commercialisation could be for you, check out some of our previous content in the related links below. Other scientists in the United Kingdom and North America who've gone into tech transfer have told us their stories of how they made the transition and what their daily lives are like now. And if this, or any of the other stories you read on Next Wave, set you on the path to a career you love, let us know!

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