Proof Positive--Scots Are Enterprising

Forty new research posts have been created in Scotland's leading university departments and research institutions as a result of the latest round of awards from the Proof of Concept Fund. Established in 1999 by Scottish Enterprise in partnership with the Scottish Executive, the 3-year, £11 million fund was designed to support the commercialisation of cutting-edge research and technologies in academic institutions throughout Scotland. Now the fund has been trebled to £33 million and extended to 2005. It currently supports 82 new projects, which have created a total of 207 new jobs.

Announcing the latest successful projects, Wendy Alexander, who has just resigned as minister for Enterprise, Transport and Lifelong Learning, highlighted the success of the first company to be spun out from research backed by the Proof of Concept Fund. "Essient Photonics started as a Proof of Concept funded project at Glasgow University," she said. "It has now been backed with £4.9 million of private equity capital." Nonetheless, Robert Crawford, chief executive of Scottish Enterprise, pointed out that "funding this type of early-stage research is risky, and the full economic potential will take anything up to 20 years to generate."

Essient Photonics is based on optoelectronic technology developed by Charles Ironside. Other projects that have been awarded Proof of Concept funding are in fields as diverse as the isolation of disease-curing antibodies from sharks, novel treatments for Alzheimer's disease, storyboards and animatics for the Web, mitral valve development, and new ways of detecting tooth decay.

A new round of bids is about to start, so if you have patentable research that you think has the potential to form the basis of a business or be licensed, why not go to a Proof of Concept Roadshow to find out more? These are taking place in May and June (see Web site for details) and aim to explain the application process and give you the opportunity to meet representatives to discuss your ideas. The closing date for outline applications is 17 September 2002.

Scottish Enterprise, in conjunction with the Royal Society of Edinburgh, also offers Enterprise fellowships aimed at researchers who want to develop spinoff companies in which they expect to play a leading role. These provide a year's salary to develop your commercial proposition, business training to help in preparing a business plan, and access to networks of mentors, business experts, and professional advisors.

Previous fellows have already found success in the commercial environment. An independent interim report evaluating the scheme published in June 2001 found that seven businesses had arisen from 18 fellowships undertaken to that point, and that 48 jobs had been created as a result.

Shane Sturrock, then a postdoc at Edinburgh University, was awarded a fellowship in 1999. Having gained his Ph.D. in molecular biology in 1997, he was keen to pursue a career in academic research and did not find the prospect of working in industry too appealing, but he was equally disillusioned with the lack of career structure in academia. A lucky break, literally, led to his current success. "I found myself with some time on my hands after breaking my leg and decided to fill in the application for the Scottish Enterprise Fellowship," he explains.

Shane already had some commercial experience, as he had originally developed the sequence analysis program which ran on MasPar supercomputers and was being sold by an American company. However, after MasPar met its demise he decided to reengineer the software to run on general-purpose hardware, which would make it more commercially viable. With John Collins, reader and joint director of the Biocomputing Research Unit at Edinburgh University, he developed a suite of sequence-analysis programs.

"I would definitely recommend the fellowship to anyone who is interested in running their own business," says Shane. During the fellowship year, he had business skills training one afternoon a week at Caledonian University in Glasgow, where there is an option to take an M.Sc. in New Venture Creation. There he had the opportunity to meet the other fellowship holders and to network with local investment people. This led to the founding of Edinburgh Biocomputing systems (now called Aneda), the company of which he is chief scientific officer, in August 2000. Shane says the advantage of doing the fellowship was that he was able to use "incubator facilities" at Edinburgh University, which gave him phones and network access. He also felt reassured that "if things had not worked out with the business, I still had the option of going back to academia, so it offered greater security."

The selection for fellowships takes place in April and October. You can find out more by visiting either the Scottish Enterprise or Royal Society of Edinburgh Web site.

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