Turning new discoveries into new businesses is one way many people think that the UK can haul itself out of the economic downturn.
Professor Peter Dobson, Director of Oxford University's Begbroke Science Park, is closely involved in many aspects of enterprise and entrepreneurship and has just coordinated a new course for Oxford's MPLS Division on this topic.
I quizzed him about the challenges of launching university spin-out firms and what support Oxford can give to business-minded scientists:
OxSciBlog: What's the biggest challenge facing scientists who want to spinout a company from their research?
Peter Dobson: They have to establish that there is a market need for their idea or product arising from the idea: it is one thing to have made a ground-breaking scientific discovery, with several papers in top journals, but quite another to turn that discovery into an "invention" that can be used to develop a new product that people will buy.
Scientists at Oxford University are fortunate in having a large support network to help them. This network is made up of Oxford Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, based in the Business School; the department of Continuing Professional Development that puts on courses such as the one mentioned above; Isis Innovation, the company owned by the University to assist in the exploitation process; a very supportive Research Services Office that monitors all the incoming funding and agreements, and the Begbroke Science Park.
OSB: How can Begbroke help budding science entrepreneurs?
PD: The Begbroke Science Park can help to provide space at the very initial stage of the formation of a company. There is also a support team there that can help with these early stages. Members of the team also contribute to the other activities in the University, especially by delivering introductory courses on enterprise and entrepreneurship.
OSB: What makes it different from other science or business parks?
PD: Begbroke has a mixture of small high technology companies and University research activities. It has grown around the world-class Department of Materials facilities which in themselves are now part of a national network of nanotechnology research. The BegbrokeNano characterisation service offers one of the most comprehensive set of micro/nano analysis for materials in the world. This in turn attracts companies to the site or to set-up nearby. Most of the University research on the site is very applied and multi-disciplinary, providing a very dynamic and exciting environment.
OSB: What skills do scientists need to learn to succeed in a business environment?
PD: Scientists need to listen and learn, and try to apply their knowledge to "finding solutions". They should try to engage with as many people as they can, get out of the research lab, talk to people in sales and marketing, talk to decision-makers, local and regional government. This external engagement will be most valuable, it may convince them to stay in the research lab, but more often it will encourage them to apply their know-how to help business and society!
OSB: How does the 'Oxford Model' work and how might it be exported elsewhere?
PD: I think that the Oxford Model is within the way that the University has made very generous provision for the management and exploitation of any intellectual property arising from academic activities, coupled with the linkage between all of the organisations mentioned in the first question. It can be exported and is actively being followed in most UK Universities, albeit not quite so vigorously, and overseas.
OSB: What could be done to enable more UK spinout companies to prosper?
PD: The recession has exposed how fragile high technology spin-out companies are, especially in the early years. The UK Government could help by being more adventurous with financial support, for premises, for R&D grants and tax credits. There could also be a huge benefit if Government procurement was designed in a way to benefit some of the exciting new breakthrough technologies, especially in areas such as healthcare. Currently many of our small companies cannot rely on good captive home markets and have to launch their business in the US.