Research-led new businesses need commercialisers

Research-led businesses desperately need commercialisers Few leading business people started their careers as scientists, yet the need for commercial support for research-led businesses is acute. How can this chasm be bridged? Innovators need to be identified; science entrepreneurs need to be hallowed; support needs to be tailored for and concentrated on young science businesses; and universities need to redouble their work to identify and foster their research that has commercial potential, and incubate and support more young businesses.

It has long been a concern that in the UK we fail to profit from the high ranking of our research. Yet there are far fewer commercial startups and spinouts in UK universities than in the US. What distinguishes Apple is the speed with which technical innovations are translated into commercial products.

As Innovate UK plans to focus more onto the commercialisation of UK research, the US ‘Science’ magazine (June 12 issue) writes up five stories about scientists who have or have not turned their hands to their own businesses, one of whom has become a catalyst for others to follow the commercial route. A second article discusses ways in which commercialisation of research has been encouraged in the US, including:

  • campus competitions to solicit valuable ideas
  • establishing university VC funds
  • university incubators, and
  • ‘accelerator’ programmes, such as the 10-week Innovation Corps programmes of the National Science Foundation.

Commercial-minded heads of labs The founder of one company tells about a knock on the door from a university tech transfer official who asked her if she had anything that could be taken to market. “We thought she was crazy”, but that person ‘took a shot’. A second company grew out of an I-Corps boot camp for would-be academic entrepreneurs that has been widely espoused in the US but so far only found a single adopter in the UK.

While the main interest of the majority of academics is research and teaching, some academics have a strong orientation towards business (who may become founders of startups) and others have some interest (who might become members of teams). So blanket programmes to encourage commercialisation are of little value. Successful commercialisation depends not only on having the ability to develop new technology but also on having the capacity to do so.

Jackie Ying was head of a lab at MIT where she encouraged her students to tackle issues that could have commercial appeal as much as scientific appeal, and helped them to realise their commercial capabilities as well as produce great science. She went on to become founding director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore where her objective was to spread the twin gospels of top-flight research and entrepreneurship that she had learned at MIT. Her record over the past 12 years suggests that she has done that: IBN has generated more than 300 patents, 80 licences, and eight startup companies.

Identifying real innovators One (personal and itself innovative) view of great innovators (in drug hunting) is that they are:

  • risk-takers with a dislike of the status quo
  • have an outstanding grasp of the cognate science
  • have a non-compliant attitude to formal organizational processes
  • hold strong scientific convictions which they express forcefully, and
  • are genuinely ambitious more for their [idea] than for themselves.

They will usually originate in academia, possibly from an experience in academic/industrial collaboration. This suggests a need to rethink the ways in which innovators are selected and managed.

Other research strongly confirms that you need to know a lot about your subject before you are likely to lead it into new directions; and that such leaders are visionaries/ideas people, who annex the help of others to turn their ideas into reality.

Support for innovators and commercialisers in academia MIT ‘s recent report (1) reinforces the well-acknowledged need for comprehensive eco-systems comprising [a culture of entrepreneurial] teams, [plentiful] risk capital, and corporate and university leadership; and it acknowledges that such systems are difficult to catalyse. MIT’s programme in Scotland has been focusing on two components, namely:

  • entrepreneurial mentoring, and
  • the development of a dynamic network for entrepreneurs.

Parallels with other fields emphasise the importance of working with early-stage ventures and providing support in the form of mentoring, training and access to networks (with peers, customers, experts and investors.)

Innovate UK is now offering to its grant winners the services free of charge of the Business Growth Service. This service gives access to a review with a Business Growth Manager, and thence to one of a choice of coaches, advisers and consultants, to help identify problems and formulate plans for the growth of the business. It should be made available on the same basis to all young businesses in Accelerators, incubators, science parks, innovation centres and tech hubs.

Daresbury Innovation Centre has expanded, as has the range and quantity of support available – together with its innovation network; but the minimal support available to the young businesses in Harwell’s incubators raises questions about the support for other businesses on the site, or at Culham or at other Science and Technology sites.

Short programmes like the I-Corps programme (which has been espoused by a number of government agencies in the US) that aim to provide intensive support for early-stage businesses (‘Accelerators’) are now common in a number of fields both in the US and the UK, though the only directly comparable programme in the UK is one adopted by Imperial College for startups based on synthetic biology. Isis, the Oxford University tech transfer office has just enrolled Wayra Lab, Telefonica’s Accelerator organisation, to set up a similar arrangement for Oxford University entrepreneurs.

Many unversities are already embraced by the IP group and other groups of VCs, but overall the emphasis on entrepreneurialism is minimal. Most universities have their own incubators, but the number of places in them is tiny in relation to the number of aspiring entrepreneurs ion universities. And while there is of course a wealth of technical support available in universities for their young businesses, they do not necessarily know what they need to know, with which mentors can help. Tech transfer offices have often been filled from university staff rather than from the commercial world outside; and in sharp contrast to the business world, support tends to be limited and to be reactive rather than proactive.

Structuring projects for commercialisation Whereas few Biotech incubators offer significant support, BioCity in Nottingham is unusual in that it runs a programme that seeks out areas with identifiable needs for innovation and aims to match them with innovators in a programme of intensive development. The Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst has adopted a different route in that it is positioned alongside GSK’s Laboratories and aims to enable its occupants to work with and make use of GSK’s scientists. The new Crick Institute in London needs to be as strong at bringing into use as it aims to be in research.

While Life Science VCs are said to need big pockets and a wide range of expertise to be effective, and tend to seek quick wins, in 2012 the Wellcome Trust launched a fund that aims to support developments that may be of strategic or technical importance, that seeks to identify important discoveries with potential to significantly impact the healthcare market, and not only to fund their development, but also to put management into place.

The European Space Agency is actively seeking to generate development projects in the range of £500k- £1mn investment that address major issues that might be solved by consortia of disparate organisations with the help of space-related technology (of which it currently has about 10 in hand in the UK). One such integrated application is attacking the recent sharp rise in the incidence of Lyme’s Disease, where the project entails a development plan for research into malaria in Africa and in the UK, GPs and hospitals in Scotland, and pharmaceutical companies.

If scientific collaborations play an increasingly important role in driving world leading research, the Nature Index of Collaborations database — with its focus on high-quality science articles — lends itself well to the analysis of collaboration patterns both between institutions and countries. It paints a rich picture of the global research ecosystem and yields insights into the power and impact of joint research.

Alas, the Queens Anniversary prizes ‘for universities and colleges that demonstrate excellence, innovation and impact – for the institution itself and for people and society more generally in a wider world’ hardly get a mention in the press to-day.

(1) Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Programme

John Whatmore, November 2015


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