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How a science master's could help budding inventors become entrepreneurs

The Guardian
A science or engineering postgrad could help student’s take their idea from the laboratory to the marketplace

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jan/16/how-a-science-masters-could-help-budding-inventors-become-entrepreneurs

It looks like the stuff of science fiction. As a snowboarder carves through virgin snow, a small drone buzzes overhead – an attached camera following and filming his every turn. This is Hexo+, an intelligent drone from a company founded by students doing a postgraduate in entrepreneurship at the Grenoble Ecole de Management in France.

They’ve been savvy enough to wage a winning international campaign on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. Skateboarders, cyclists, athletes and many more are excited at the thought that they will be able to film their sporting endeavours from the air via the drone. Co-founders asked for $50,000 (£32,000) and in one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns to date, backers have pledged more than $1.3m (£800,000) before a single drone has been delivered.

Although not all projects born of university collaborations spark such excitement, science and engineering postgraduates could use a helping hand from institutions to turn their research into a going concern. While the UK is a world leader in areas such as engineering design and aerospace, it’s historically been difficult to get new ideas to market. “UK universities produce some of the greatest innovations in the world, but getting them out of the lab and into the marketplace remains a huge challenge,” says Arnoud Jullens, head of enterprise at the Royal Academy of Engineering’s enterprise hub, which was set up to nurture and mentor business-minded engineers.

But support for science and engineering entrepreneurs from universities has grown enormously in the past few years, alongside a recognition of their contribution to the economy. And with the growth of novel ways to raise money quickly and independently of banks, the postgraduate years, say many young entrepreneurs, can be an ideal time to set up a business. Few actually do, however – and that’s something universities are working hard to change. All science and engineering researchers would benefit from developing entrepreneurial skills, says the University of Central Lancashire, (UCLan) which operates the Institute for Innovation, Enterprise and Entrepreneurship.

UCLan has embedded enterprise elements into a training programme for researchers. Students can find future business partners among their peers and benefit from essential facilities and events laid on by some UK universities. Like UCLan, many institutions now run business incubators, offering premises and practical advice on the mechanics of setting up companies and protecting their intellectual property. “The easiest time to start you own company is alongside your studies,” says Hind Kraytem, a recent postgraduate who considers entrepreneurship her hobby.

An award-winning engineer entrepreneur, Kraytem completed an MPhil in bioscience enterprise at the University of Cambridge and has already been involved in a couple of start-ups. She’s now based in Oxford, working at Said Business School’s Launchpad, linked to the school’s entrepreneurship centre. Her latest company, Uprosa, begins trading in the new year with a range of products featuring photos and illustrations of breakthrough scientific discoveries. “It’s easier when you’re part of an institution; you have resources to hand and mentors. You have enough time to test the waters with your idea.”

But while relatively low-risk retail or technology-based enterprises such as app and website development require little financial backing, it’s a different story for innovation in engineering or biotechnology, says Robert Phillips, a lecturer at the University of Manchester’s enterprise centre within Manchester Business School. Phillips runs entrepreneurship training for postgraduate researchers and the interest among students is high; talks by successful entrepreneurs are among the most highly attended events at the university.

“Finding capital is almost always the biggest problem, especially with tech and biotech projects that might need many millions of pounds,” says Phillips, and it’s a long road. “[Researchers] need to de-risk the project to a point where an equity investor can judge what it may be worth and propose an investment.”

Researchers also need to consider their future role in a business, says Peter Rawling, business incubation manager at UCLan. “Will they be designer or manufacturer? Sometimes simply licensing the idea to an established manufacturer with a developed distribution network can be the right business model.”

At University College London (UCL), post-doctoral researcher Niall Kent has co-developed “Aerograft”, a synthetic material that is more effective than existing bone replacements used in dental operations. Kent won a Royal Academy of Engineering Launchpad award of £15,000, and mentorship support designed to help young engineers get a business idea off the ground. He’s working at UCL’s Centre for Nature Inspired Engineering as he develops the product, which will take at least two years before it can be used on patients. “We want to be in a strong position to negotiate with investors,” he says.

Like many scientists turning to commerce, Kent has endured a steep learning curve. “It’s a lonely world,” he says. “You need to find confidence to develop your own ideas. It’s a good idea to ask for input from investors during the early stage to make sure that you’re going down the right path.”

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