Transfer Yourself From the Academic to the Commercial World


Dear CareerDoctor,I am a postdoc with over 5 years' experience in biomedical research and I've been seeking opportunities to further my career in technology transfer for the past year. My problem is I can't find a company willing to take me on without any business training.I have read all the technology transfer articles I can find on Next Wave and I've talked with the tech transfer officer in my previous work place. I went to two biotechnology job fairs recently and visited the stands of tech transfer companies. One told me that I need an MBA degree, the other said I don't need one. I am confused as what I should do. Even though business development roles within the pharmaceutical industry are definitely something I am also considering, an MBA course is a very expensive option to get relevant business training.I've also talked to a friend who works for the management consulting and technology services company Accenture, who then introduced me to a recruitment agency which specialises in business development. The consultant there also suggested that I gain business experience, but as a bench scientist, I lack opportunities to do so.Should I give up my job as a postdoc and go for an MBA, or look for any kind of job that could give me the experience I need? Or should I, like a few of my colleagues, go for a part-time finance degree and hope I will find the job I want afterwards?In one of your columns, you wrote about Enterprise Fellowships available in Scotland. Are there any fellowships offered in England? Are there any other courses (part-time or distance learning) or training I can do while I am still working as a postdoc?

I've also had an offer of a postdoc in a pharmaceutical company; do you think this might be another way to get into technology transfer?To summarise, what support/activities/organisations/courses are available to someone in the UK interested in technology transfer?I look forward to hearing from you.Yours sincerely,Ching Li

Dear Ching Li,

I'm sorry to hear your proactive and determined approach to making a transition into technology transfer hasn't paid off so far. From your letter there seems to be an obvious sticking point--your lack of commercial experience. The opportunity to conduct research in a more commercial environment (i.e., the industrial postdoc) may be a way to begin to develop this. However you would still mainly be a research scientist working to strict deadlines, so you would be unlikely to get significant exposure to business development in the short term. Having said that, this is probably a better next step than another conventional academic postdoc, so keep your options open. Meanwhile there are a couple of approaches that you have yet to explore, and I'll outline them here.

More Technology Transfer and Business Development Resources

? Careers in Technology Transfer

? Investing in Science Feature

? Commercializing Technology in Canada Feature

? Business Plan Competitions Feature

? MBA Lessons for Scientists: Index of Columns

? Stepping Into the Business World

? A Head for Business?

? Breaking Into Technology Transfer

? The Cambridge Biotechnology Cluster

The Enterprise Fellowships that I mentioned in my previous Enterprise for Academics column are only one way to bridge the gap between doing research and promoting the commercial benefits of research. Last week I was at the Society for General Microbiology's 154th Meeting at the University of Bath (representing Next Wave, so keep an eye on this column for details of future events I'll be attending) and I chatted with a couple of experts in this field.

Andy Cureton, an Innovation Programme manager for the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council ( BBSRC) and Professor John Peberdy, from the University of Nottingham, were both at the conference to promote Biotechnology YES. This competition for teams of postgraduate students and postdocs aims to raise awareness of research commercialisation within academia. The teams have to present a business plan to a panel of business, financial, and academic representatives who play the role of venture capitalists.

To help them develop their business plan, competitors get intensive training and even work with expert mentors while having a chance to talk to people working in the commercialisation of bioscience. "The competition provides a unique opportunity to learn about business and to network with practitioners," explains Cureton. "The Biotechnology YES scheme is becoming widely recognised by the UK biotechnology industry as giving participants essential experience of commercialising research." So, I'd recommend that you try to get a team together for this year's competition (the closing date for your entry is 30 June)! The Biotechnology YES Web site also contains many links to careers sites of interest.

What's more, last year the Joint Research Councils ran a Business Plan Competition for researchers in all fields which also gave intensive training on commercialisation and business planning. There is currently no sign of a competition for this year, but I would encourage you to keep an eye on the Joint Research Councils Web site so that you are ready when a new one comes up.

An event taking place at the end of this month entitled " Creating Business through Trading Technology" organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry would give you another opportunity to network and broaden your awareness of current issues in science commercialisation. Be warned though--the event is primarily aimed at businesses, so there is a fee to attend.

Looking further afield, the Marie Curie Host Fellowships for the Transfer of Knowledge are worth investigating, particularly if you are interested in European enterprise initiatives. Again, this is just an example, so you should search databases of grants and funding programmes such as RD Info. Cureton also told me about Medici Fellowships which aim to "foster a climate of entrepreneurship in universities" and would be ideally suited to your current situation. The programme was a pilot which is no longer accepting applications, but don't be disheartened--it seems to have been a great success and is likely to be repeated on a larger scale in many different institutions.

The UK Government is determined to develop a "third stream" of funding for higher education, based on support from business, so the current climate is in your favour. Institutions are being assisted through the Research Councils and the Higher Education Innovation Fund, and I think you will find a healthy number of enterprise fellowships being advertised from this August, when the funds become available.

As well as research fellowships this funding boost may also lead to more technology transfer and business development posts in universities and enterprise councils. I think that these types of employers will see your academic experience in a more positive light. Commercial firms often deal (at least initially) with central university technology transfer units rather than individual academics, so the benefits of your background have less impact there.

However, inside an academic institution, your familiarity with the research environment and the credibility your postdocing experience will give you are more marketable--provided you can demonstrate commercial awareness. Do you have any direct experience of trying to exploit your own research? If this isn't realistic, are there other groups in your field carrying out research with commercial potential? Could you "shadow" them as they pursue this or get involved in the commercialisation process?

I feel that this route--building upon your background and "overlapping" your current position with your intended one as much as you can--has the greatest chance of success. I am a little cynical about the MBA route into business if your main hurdle is a lack of commercial experience. Having an MBA won't give you commercial experience--it will only give you commercial knowledge, perhaps applied through projects, but not as "real" as working on real commercial ventures in a real commercial environment. It could even backfire on you--you risk looking like an academic who feels they can become commercially aware by doing another academic course! I think an MBA would have far more value later in your career when you have a bank of personal experience to reflect upon and can apply the business strategies a good MBA will give you to real situations. Ideally, your employer will also pay your fees!

Finally, I want to reassure you that you have been taking the correct approach to your transition--you've spoken to people who are working in relevant fields, attended events, and you are aware of what you will need to add to your CV to be successful. The next step is to find ways to overcome the hurdles that you've met. In the current climate, I'm sure you'll find a fellowship or programme which will enable you to successfully transfer yourself from the academic to the commercial world.

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor

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