To Boldly Go ... Enterprise for Academics


Dear CareerDoctor,I am approaching the final year of my chemistry degree at Bristol University and am planning on doing a Ph.D., although I have no idea in which area of chemistry. I have high ambitions, but I am unsure how to go about realising them.I can see two options that seem to suit my preferences and was wondering whether you could shed any light on how realistic they are, and how I might go about maximising my chances of achieving them.I read a Next Wave article by Stephen Cheung on academic consulting and was interested in what you had to say on how feasible it is to be an academic and a consultant within the field of chemistry. Do such people exist? Who employs them? Is there much demand for them? Are some fields more suited to part-time consulting than others?On a related note, I was also interested in hearing about academic chemists who have gone on to start their own companies. Are they a rare breed? Are there specific fields where start-up companies are more common? Is being the founder of a successful chemistry-related company mostly about luck, ability, or an even mix of the two?If you have any thoughts on how to achieve financial success whilst still pursuing academic interests, I would be most interested in hearing them.Thanks,Clyde

Dear Clyde,

You've asked many questions, and the answer to most of them is "yes." There IS a demand for the specialised knowledge and skills that academic chemists can offer to industry, and there ARE fields of study that offer more opportunities for consultancy than do others. In fact, academic consultancy is a growing field in the United Kingdom in general and in chemistry in particular. And if your ambitions are to reach beyond the ivory tower by starting your own company based on academic research (often referred to as "spin-outs"), then there are a number of role models whose stories will give you an insight into what successful entrepreneurs are made of.

Academic consultants work with external bodies on individual projects or offer specialised services whilst continuing as employees within their university (usually full-time, although universities are increasingly flexible should your consultancy work demand a bigger share of your time). Academic consultancy is a way for academics to commercialise their research when they are not ready (or willing) to set up their own spin-out companies. Instead they can licence their ideas to companies and then act as technical consultants on the R&D side of the project. So you will need to build a reputation for carrying out research that is successful and makes a contribution to your field.

You will probably find that many academics in your department undertake consultancy work, and I'd suggest you ask around your department and find out how these opportunities have come about. Academics I've spoken to have developed consultancy work through word of mouth from colleagues or research partners (so they make sure everyone is aware of their work) or have been contacted by clients who have read about their research on departmental Web pages.

In fact, your interest in combining academic research with commercial activity is perfectly timed. The government is determined to introduce a "third mission" for higher education, alongside teaching and research, that is to encourage transfer of science and technology innovation to the business sector. Most institutions (yours included) have a unit or centre to advise academics on how to connect with potential consultancy clients and support enterprise amongst its staff and students. Beware, though: Academics are often asked for free advice and information, so you will need to have enough of a business brain to decide when this is worthwhile as a "loss leader" and could lead to more lucrative work. Academic consultancy fees usually start at about £500 per day, but the university will take a large slice of any income (the proportion varies), so don't start booking any expensive holidays yet! On the plus side, you have the security of a salaried job, the variety offered by academia, and the opportunity to develop your business awareness.

The Academic Consultant Series

Stephen Cheung's articles on his academic consultancy:

The HE initiative also translates into high levels of support for young scientists who are interested in starting a spin-out company, so look around your university for ways to hone your entrepreneurial skills. Many universities run competitions for students that give them access to business advisers and mentors (usually successful entrepreneurs themselves). However, you'll need to carefully weigh the workload, because a high-degree class is essential for an entrepreneurial career based in academia.

If you decide that next year is the time to focus on getting a top-class degree, then you may still be able to develop your entrepreneurial skills once you've started your Ph.D. I've found details of programmes encouraging enterprise in young researchers in a number of institutions. One example is the Enterprise Fellowship offered by Scottish Enterprise to postgraduate students and researchers interested in starting a spin-out company based on their research. This scheme provides you with a year's salary to develop your idea at your home university; business training that will help you prepare a business plan and take your idea forward; and access to professional advice and support. The fellowships are only one way in which Scottish Enterprise can help academic entrepreneurs, and you will find out more on their Web site.

Schemes supporting enterprise in academic research are in no way restricted to Scottish universities. The Office of Science and Technology runs the Science Enterprise Challenge, which has led to the establishment of 12 Science Enterprise Centres in universities around the United Kingdom. I'd suggest that you look at the activities of these centres when you are deciding where and what to study for your Ph.D.

You may also find opportunities when looking at things the other way round: through identifying high-tech firms that wish to start up or develop new research capacity. They are encouraged to do so with initiatives such as the Small Business Research Initiative ( SBRI, which is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. You may also want to check related research funding initiatives on the SBRI Web site.

In any case, remember that at this stage the key to future success is a strong research foundation. Look for a research supervisor with a solid reputation, a good publishing record (so you can build a reputation of your own), and the facility for securing industrial money as well as public or charity funds. In fact, the ideal start to your academic life would be with someone who can develop both strands of your future career: research and enterprise. The tricky part is how to identify entrepreneurial academics!

One resource that you really should turn to is a report written by Mario Moustras at the Royal Society of Chemistry ( RSC). I turned to him for advice after reading Spin Out Companies From UK Chemistry Departments , which examines most of the issues you've asked about. The report identifies those academic institutions with a strong spin-out culture, and Mario has offered to discuss his findings with you and describe in more details how the RSC may support exactly the kind of career path you are planning. Mario will also be able to give you an opinion on another important factor you need to consider: the area of chemistry research that you decide to specialise in. His report suggests that the current "hot" fields are materials chemistry and biological and pharmaceutical chemistry. This view is supported by looking at the areas in which many of the organisations supporting enterprise have a special interest; look for these on their Web sites.

Having said that, you also need to be aware that commercially popular areas of science are likely to change over the next decade or so (which is when you are likely to have sufficient experience to pursue your ambitions, although it may be sooner!), so I'd recommend that you get into the habit of following developments in relevant industries now. Next Wave can help you with that by providing regular features on areas of science that are in the ascendancy (see last week's article on photonics, for example), but you also need to read the business news in Chemistry in Britain and understand the perspective of potential investors. You will have to approach them if you are to spin out your research, and when that time comes you'll find the British Venture Capital Association a great source of advice.

Talking of venture capitalists leads me neatly to the next topic of interest, namely, academic or scientific entrepreneurs, because one of the great successes of British science may be someone you approach for funding one day! Chris Evans's story is one that should inspire you; he describes himself as a "serial scientist entrepreneur" and is now committed to developing the U.K. science base further through his own venture investment company Merlin Biosciences. Although not a chemist (but originally a microbiologist), his experiences will give you an idea of what a scientist can achieve in business. You can read more about him in an interview he gave after winning a World Technology Award in 1999 and an article written for his alumni magazine at Imperial College--his comments on how he chose a Ph.D. offer particular food for thought. I once saw him speak about his achievements, and 10 years on I can still remember his energy and willingness to risk everything to pursue his dreams (and how understanding his wife must have been when he remortgaged their house!). You can read more profiles of young entrepreneurs on the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce Web site and Next Wave (see box). I'm quite sure you will find that enthusiasm and a taste for risk taking are common denominators among these individuals.

Entrepreneurs on Next Wave

Finally, I'd like to give you something tangible to aim for in the future: the RSC Chemistry Entrepreneur of the Year Award, which was awarded in January to Victor Christou, another graduate of Imperial College and a materials chemist who has continued to combine business and academia through his dual roles as vice president of science of Opsys Limited and lecturer at University College, Oxford. You can read about his career path and research area in the latest newsletter produced by the Materials Chemistry Forum. If you can emulate his scientific excellence and business sense, I'm sure that with the support available, your dream of building a commercial career upon academic research is achievable.

Good luck in your career,

The CareerDoctor

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