Researchers Learn the Business

Europe has a long-standing reputation for producing excellent science, but some say that it is less able than its global competitors to take new science and turn it into innovative commercial products and services. The 2004 European Innovation Scoreboard, for example, highlights a continuing "innovation gap" between the European Union and its economic competitors, the United States and Japan. Much of this gap can be attributed to quantifiable factors: a smaller number of patents issued, a lower percentage of the workforce that is university-educated, and a lower percentage of gross domestic product spent on research and development. "Although the UK punches well above its weight in science, we have yet to see the UK reach its potential in commercialising the significant research output that has resulted," says Nelson Phillips, head of the organisation and strategy group of Tanaka Business School, based at Imperial College London.

One obstacle to commercialisation may be a lack of business knowledge among academic scientists. It can be difficult, in an academic environment, to acquire exposure to and training in commercialisation and entrepreneurship--even for those with an interest in these areas. Over the last few years, several courses that have popped up in the United Kingdom aim to prepare researchers to turn their science into enterprise.

Masters of enterprise

One example is the Manchester Science Enterprise Centre's (MSEC's) 1-year Master of Enterprise (MEnt) degree programme. The programme is aimed at people with scientific training, although the course takes graduates from other creative disciplines such as art, design, and textiles. Robert Phillips, a lecturer on the course and a PhD biochemist, says that the programme "combines science and technology subject modules with modules on the basics of business, management, and finance." The majority of MEnt students, Phillips says, have only primary science degrees, although some PhDs and postdocs sign up, too.

Robert Phillips from Manchester Science Enterprise Centre

Students in the course are required to develop a project of commercial value in their subject area. "Most students entering the course come with their own idea for a business start-up," says Phillips. "Alternatively, we can offer them a project. Then half their time is spent in one of the university's departments working on technical aspects of the project, and the other half with MSEC building the business."

Since the MEnt course was initiated in 2001, it has trained about 100 students and created about 30 new businesses, many located near the university or at one of its associated "incubator" sites. "Computing ideas tend to see the most success at present due to lower start-up costs," Phillips says. "Of course, not all the business ideas are successful long-term", "but the skills acquired during the MEnt degree are also highly attractive to prospective employers looking for technically competent managers--for research-led companies--experienced in innovation and knowledge transfer."

One important--and relatively rare--aspect of the programme is that students retain ownership of intellectual property generated during their MEnt course unless it is initiated as a joint development with one of the university's labs. "This is an important factor and ensures [that] the personal incentive to succeed remains in the project throughout," say Phillips.

More recently, MSEC has started a course for postdocs and PhD students that consists of a short series of workshops. "These introduce aspects of commercialising ideas such as ideas evaluation, how to write a business plan, and how to market a high-tech product," says Phillips.

Engineer Sam Worthington

The student view

Sam Worthington, a MEnt graduate, now runs his own engineering design consultancy, with fellow engineer Dave Sharpe, developing devices such as a computer mouse for three-dimensional manipulations. Worthington began his MEnt training in 2002 after completing a degree in mechanical engineering at Manchester. "I had always wanted to set up a business and saw the course as a win-win situation," he says. "It was a great opportunity to learn by doing--the only real way to learn how to set up a business--but with a great support network and an effective safety net."

Geographer David Thomas praises the course for similar reasons. Thomas already had commercial experience when he signed up for the course, having worked with the management consultants Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) and established a "dot-com" business with a colleague. Thomas and his business partner managed to secure venture-capital financing, but the company folded, leaving Thomas with a dilemma about what to do next.

"I was still interested in geography and clearly interested in the business side of things," says Thomas. The MEnt at Manchester seemed a good way to start a new business, and as a fallback you gain a valuable qualification." Thomas says he received extensive support throughout the course as well as benefiting from the university's ready-made network of contacts. As a MEnt student, he had access to facilities that included "a boardroom environment that was very professional and ideal for impressing new clients or finance people," he says.

It paid off. Through the MEnt course, Thomas developed a product that provides multimedia information for tourists on a hand-held PDA using global positioning technology. His company, D-Geo, is based in the University of Manchester Incubator Company. The company is currently finalising a launch deal for the device. Together with colleagues, he has also established a second company, Inventya, which is developing a software package to help researchers and business people evaluate research ideas for commercial potential.

Other MEnt students work with established or new companies. One current student, chemistry graduate Iram Choudary, is working in conjunction with Iota Nanosolutions, a Unilever spin-out company developing technology that originated at Liverpool University. The project was suggested by Lyn Sheppard, head of postgraduate studies at MSEC, who has contacts at Unilever. Choudary spent 2 weeks at Unilever Ventures in London, Iota's main funder, developing a business plan for their novel products. "The company is working with cutting-edge nanotechnology," says Choudary. "It is a great grounding, working simultaneously on technical aspects of the product and business issues. The company mentors are all very supportive."

Chemist Iram Choudary

One obstacle to doing such a programme is finding the money to fund it. Phillips says that most of the 25 or so MEnt students annual are funded by scholarships; UK and other E.U. nationals can be supported by funds from the European Social Fund.

Imperial and Royal Society team up

A different approach to enterprise training is offered by the Tanaka Business School, based at Imperial College London. This year, the business school launched its first programme tailored for scientists, in conjunction with the Royal Society. The "Innovation and the Business of Science" scheme was developed for researchers funded by the Royal Society. "We hope that programmes such as this will give young researchers the skills and enthusiasm they need to create the next wave of innovative companies," says the Tanaka Business School's Nelson Phillips.

Taken over 12 months, the short course covers science-based innovation, leadership skills, and entrepreneurship in three modules, each 2 to 3 days in duration. "The first 3-day course gives the fellows the opportunity to understand the process of taking a piece of science and bringing it to market as a product. The second stage outlines subjects such as enterprise budgeting, managing projects-–the basic business principles--effectively, it is a mini MBA in 2 days," says Nelson Phillips. "The final part focuses on the processes for intellectual property, commercial protection, and establishing the market potential of a product: all basic entrepreneurship skills." Each module includes workshops led by scientists, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders who have extensive experience with the challenge of transforming inventions into products.

Imperial College's Nelson Phillips

Feedback on the course so far is positive. Maya Thanou, for example, a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellow investigating drug-delivery methods at Imperial, says, "The course really boosted my confidence. It teaches skills and [a] philosophy that senior postdocs really need in their day-to-day work in today's academic environment, such as good negotiating skills."

If it is Tuesday, it must be Enterprise

At Cambridge University, the Judge Business School has established an extracurricular business programme that is reaching out to the research community. "The Enterprise Tuesday initiative attracts some 250 to 400 people to its weekly evening lectures, depending on the subject and speaker," says Shailendra Vyakarnam, director of the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning in the school. "It is a voluntary programme that is aiming to inspire and inform its audience."

Imperial College's Maya Thanou

"The audience largely comprises the Cambridge PhD and postdoc research community, from anthropology to zoology, with some undergraduate students and also members of the local business community that helps with the networking mix," explains Vyakarnam. "The course runs throughout the academic year, and the first semester largely consists of inspirational lectures from entrepreneurs showing what is possible. The second semester teaches the parameters of business management and financing, etc.--the nuts and bolts of setting up a business." In the third term, there is a possibility of entering a business-plan competition.

Enterprise Tuesday is the most popular nonassessed course run at Cambridge. All attendees who register and complete the lecture course receive a Certificate of Enterprise. "Of more importance: it shows them that enterprise can be a real option," says Vyakarnam. Another possibility for budding entrepreneurs at Cambridge is the Judge Summer School. Here, a scientist with an early-stage business idea can subject it to an intensive 1-week business evaluation as well as the opportunity to network with financial people.

"All the courses are about building confidence in people," concludes Vyakarnam: "Showing scientists what is possible in business and how to do it."

Timothy J. Reynolds is a freelance writer based in Brussels and the UK .

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