Meet the material girls and boys

A new programme is giving scientists and engineers the management skills that they need
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The Independent Online

We all know that MBAs are very much part of the material world, but the idea of one connected to the materials world is not quite as obvious. Well, you need look no further than Queen Mary, University of London, where the renowned materials department has this year established an MBA in technology management and exploitation.

The course was set up with the aim of giving graduates with proven academic and practical experience in science and engineering fields the management skills and business acumen that will enable them to, in the words of the prospectus, commercialise their inventions. Among the 18 students on this year's inaugural course are also a small number primarily from business backgrounds who want to learn more about how technology can be exploited commercially.

So is it much the same as a conventional MBA housed in a business school?

"Not in the slightest," answers Professor Paul Hogg, head of the materials department, without hesitation. "Our MBA students sit in the same laboratories and offices as the PhD students doing research in materials, nanotechnology and biotechnology. This is the environment where they learn how to create business, centred on technological inventions."

The materials department at Queen Mary, the first and largest of its kind in the UK, was formed in 1968, has since established a reputation for pioneering research work, and has consistently performed well in the Research Assessment Exercise.

Examples of leading-edge work that has originated in the Queen Mary department include a number of inventions involving composites of ceramics and polymers. These have led to, among other things, the commercial development of fire-proof panels used in buildings, cars and aeroplanes, and a number of artificial components used in the medical field. A prominent example is the invention, and commercial development, of a composite material, given the trade name Hapex, which is now used in 65 per cent of all ear implants around the world.

The MBA was the brainchild of Ihtesham Rehman, senior lecturer in the materials department and now MBA course director. "We thought there was a need for graduates to marry technology skills and management theory, for the benefit of business," he says.

Around 60 per cent of lecturers have a business background, the rest coming principally from science, engineering or industry. One of the flagship elements of the 12-month programme is the series of guest lecturers who contribute to the Entrepreneurship and Business Leadership module of the course. Among these are Sir John Egan, former chairman of Jaguar Cars, Nigel Apperley, CEO of Internet Direct, and Karan Bilimoria, chief executive of Cobra Beer.

"Some of these lectures alone I thought were worth about £5,000 to me," enthuses Usman Mazhar, a 26-year-old from Pakistan.

Noor Fianti, 32, is full of praise for the quality and credentials of all the lecturers and tutors. She chose to do the Queen Mary MBA because she had been having difficulty getting business ventures off the ground in her native Indonesia.

"The course has really helped me understand business phenomena around the world. Now I have much more confidence that I will be able to manage research, and exploit it commercially as well," she says.

Both students appreciate the fact that the course is heavily weighted towards practical work, with less time spent on tasks entailing reading and written assignment than in more traditional MBA programmes.

"I have not found it tough on the reading front," says Mazhar. "It has been hard work, but I have enjoyed it a lot."

The course content is being modified for its second year and design of the programme starting in September is just being finalised. The first semester will consist of work in the traditional business areas, such as finance, marketing, HR and total quality management.

It is in the second semester that the uniqueness of the course really asserts itself, in modules that marry business disciplines with the realities of technology. Among elements here is one called technological entrepreneurship and another entitled strategic management of technologies.

"These modules are truly world-class," claims Paul Hogg. "The only other place where anything comparable is being offered is at MIT in Boston, USA."

In the third and final semester, students are teamed with a company or an industrial sector to undertake a practical project on an area of technology exploitation.

The requirements to get on the course are a first degree, preferably but not necessarily, in a scientific or technical subject, plus two to three years' experience in industry. The cost, £12,500, makes it significantly cheaper than many longer- established MBA programmes.

Given that it is a new course, there is no history yet of alumni job placements or statistics illustrating earnings increases. Ihtesham Rehman is optimistic however that it will prove a highly successful vehicle for career progression. "In the lectures and seminars, we are exposing the students to leading figures in different business sectors, and they are talking to people in different industries," he says.

Rajeev Gilani, 24, who enrolled on the course after an economics and business first degree at University College London, is convinced that the opportunity the MBA has given him to mix with and network among "impressive and charismatic" figures from industry will help him find a suitable job in the autumn. "I have always been a technology, gadgety type of person, so an MBA in technology management was always the way for me to go."

Gilani particularly values the course sessions on thinking strategically about how to commercialise technology, and those that have honed business presentation skills.

"I am quite a shy person, but I have learnt in the team-building exercises how to advance myself in a way that will help me when I am trying to manage a project."

Queen Mary hopes to have around 30 students on the course in September. In the same way that the materials department pioneered composites that revolutionised medical care, it feels that it is blending two academic areas in a way that the commercial world will value for decades.