Testing the Science Enterprise Market

Bringing a scientific business idea to the marketplace is far from trivial. Although many science trainees now benefit from in-house technology transfer--a big advantage--opportunities to meet with investors--a crucial step in any commercial venture--are not two-a-penny.

One such opportunity, on offer in the U.K. for the last several years, is Venturefest, hosted by Oxford University's Saïd Business School. Venturfest's core goal is to give scientific inventors--typically group leaders or postdocs from academic labs and early stage start-up companies--an opportunity to pitch science-enterprise ideas to an audience including investors and other professionals of the business world. The event, participants say, is also useful for scientists whose entrepreneurial ideas are still at the embryonic stage. Exposure to science entrepreneurs and other people in the business world--and a first-hand look at what those people are looking for in a business idea--can help future entrepreneurs locate and exploit funding and other business opportunities.

Headlining the fest

Pitching for capital is the chief business activity at Venturefest. Start-up companies pitch ideas to an audience that includes investors. Among this year's start-ups were Novolytics, which is developing antibacterial-resistance therapy, Exilica, which has produced silica nano shells for the slow release of chemicals for drug delivery (among other potential uses), and Blueprint Healthcare, which has developed a DNA-based pet identification service.

Many of the presenters are recent Ph.D. graduates. George Clottey, Blueprint Healthcare's CEO, is typical. A recent genetics graduate from Cambridge University, Clottey saw an opportunity when he noticed that the current state of the art in pet identification--injecting microchips under the skin--was not attractive to animal lovers. Using a new method of DNA genotyping that he developed during his Ph.D., Clottey constructed a database for pet identification. The new technology reduces the cost of DNA fingerprinting by 85%, making the procedure financially viable for pet identification. His approach has gained the approval of the United Kingdom's influential animal welfare groups, which is likely to be important for the business. Blueprint Healthcare was at Venturefest "looking for an investor or a number of investors," Clottey says. He was upbeat about the company's prospects after presenting at Venturefest and other investment forums and expects serious discussions soon.

A spectator sport

Those not quite ready to pitch can also gain a lot. "The pitches and the availability of experts to speak to informally," says biologist Jonathan Styles, who was attending his third Venturefest, "has really helped me in producing a business plan and associated presentation which has the right mix of science and business." Styles has several ideas for science-based businesses, so he was paying close attention to how other scientists pitched their ideas. "I noticed straight away it was important to play down the detail of the science and play up the detail of how the idea would make money--the pitches are very different from the research talks I was used to seeing and giving at university," he says. "I used this event to get an idea of how academics should present their ideas to business groups--for example, the need to provide an exit strategy for investors so they can see where and when they will get their money back," he says.

Investor viewpoints

Adrian Smith, a seed-fund manager for the start-up division Discovery Beach, a company that helps match entrepreneurs and investors, was at Venturefest looking for business opportunities that were "investment ready." One of the problems Smith often sees is that "the entrepreneurs try to do all the work themselves without bringing in external help"--a phenomenon known as “founders disease.” "The entrepreneur," says Smith, "should stick to what they are good at within the new company, which is also normally something they enjoy, and leave the things they are not good at to other members of the team." So whereas gaining money is important, gaining an investor with specific expertise, for example the marketing of high-tech products, is equally valuable, notes Smith. Clottey for example, was at Venturefest not only to find initial working capital and funding for a product launch, "but also [to] add expertise to the board, particularly in the marketing of the product." Discovery Beach and other participating companies often are able to provide support and advice--including help refining business plans--if, in their judgment, the basic idea on offer has a chance of making money

Martin Coomber, a funding adviser for the business-angel network South East England Capital Alliance, was looking for investment opportunities at Venturefest. His company was looking to invest between £50K and £500K in each prospect company he identified. "The criteria for investment are stringent," says Coomber, "and each opportunity is extensively studied with inventors interviewed by a panel of business angels." Coomber emphasises that just as investors like him look to spread the risk by investing in several early stage companies, entrepreneurs too should seek funding from several sources. "New entrepreneurs are often expecting 100% finance for one source, when in fact smaller amounts from multiple sources is far more realistic, with money given in stages at agreed milestones." Venturefest and similar meetings help to make this possible.

Other science enterprise events

Venturefest is also now held at York annually.

Biotechnology Investment Forum in Cambridge, at Babraham Bioscience Technologies Limited is a chance for biotech start-ups to pitch for funding.

BEX in Manchester is an opportunity for prestart-ups to gain advice and possible funding.

Springboard, organised by Connect Scotland, is an annual event where start-ups can showcase their ideas to investors.

Results of previous festivities

Any funding deals from this year's Venturefest will take months to finalise, so it's too soon to pick winners. At last year's event, a company called Flirtomatic pitched its idea: a dating service using mobile phones in addition to Web-based technology, a development of online dating services that, the founders say, has the potential to capture a huge market. Mark Curtis, Flirtomatic's CEO, says the company was "delighted with the real interest shown in what they were doing" last year. Investors weren't just flirting: Curtis says his company "secured VC funding, which allowed the business to launch in December 2005."

Expert advice on tap

Over the course of his three Venturefest outings, the expert advice Styles has received has helped him "understand further the process of starting a hi-tech company in general." Styles has spoken to business-park managers and intellectual property lawyers about issues relevant to his potential start-up, all without running up any fees. ("Although often this may require further official meetings and of course, payment," adds Styles.) Styles is now in the process of starting up a science-based Web venture with the help of a small investment from a scientific consumables company.

Running parallel to company pitches at Venturefest are seminars and workshops run by experts that focus on a range of other business issues, including what different types of investors look for, staff recruitment and people management, legal and tax issues, and exit strategies.

Getting to know all about you

Networking is an important element of Venturefest. Investors interested in a particular business are able to approach the founders for a more detailed--and confidential--discussion, or to arrange a follow-up meeting. Even for those not dealing, Venturefest offers an opportunity to meet professionals in the field, many of whom share similar scientific backgrounds. One postdoc attended a previous Venturefest with the intention of securing a job with a venture capital firm. "I made myself known to the VC's present at the event and followed up with a letter and CV to each." He was unsuccessful, but "advice given to me encouraged me to enrol for an MBA specializing in entrepreneurship," he says.

Robert Phillips is a lecturer at the Manchester Science Enterprise Centre.

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