The science of being a commercial success
Turning the joy of a scientific breakthrough into a viable product requires the skill and experience of a hard-nosed businessman
Thursday 21 June 2012
If you look at the world economies that are still thriving despite the backwash from the financial meltdown of 2008, they tend to be those where people don't just shunt money around in ever more exotic ways, but where they actually make or develop things. However, the scientists and engineers who come up with the ideas behind these ventures often do not have the commercial skills or experience to turn their inspiration into a viable business that can make their invention fulfil its true potential. For every James Dyson with his knighthood and estimated worth of around £15bn, or the founders of Instagram, the photo sharing application for smartphones that was recently snapped up by Facebook for $1bn (£650m), there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of IT geeks and bio-tech researchers whose dreams never turn into reality.
Now, that could be changing. The international business community has decided that it's time to help turn these backroom inventors into successful entrepreneurs.
At one of the UK's top engineering universities, the Loughborough University School of Business and Economics, the link between the technical and the commercial is forged through a core module called "managing innovation". Students are put into groups and offered a choice of new technologies that have not yet been fully commercialised. The groups then research the business potential of their selected technology over the course of the module and present their evaluation back to a technologist. "It enables students to work alongside technologists in developing a commercialisation strategy to take new products or services to market," says Stuart West, the MBA programmes director. "And it's also a golden opportunity to team up with technologists to create a start-up of their own."
The module was the brainchild of the school's enterprise veteran, Professor Graham Boocock, and uses the Technology, Entrepreneurship and Commercialisation (TEC) algorithm that was first developed at North Carolina State University in the US. The TEC algorithm has been specifically designed to assess new innovations with high growth potential. Ventures in the US associated with its use have already attracted more that $200m (£120m) in venture capital funding.
Elsewhere, the reputation of a parent university for science is helping potential students to see that studying at its business school would be less of a culture shock than might be otherwise expected. For example, Timothy Kaan had spent all of his career in pharmacology and neuroscience. He earned a PhD from King's College London and engaged in post-doctoral work at the University of California before taking an MBA at Oxford University's Saïd Business School. "The deciding factor for me was Oxford's name in science and healthcare research," he says. "I was hoping to find opportunities to interact with the wider research community in Oxford and that's proven to be one of the most rewarding experiences – being able to share my business management skills with scientific researchers and collaborate on strategies to commercialise their ideas."
In the USA, a number of major business schools are trying to tackle the challenge by forging strong links with their counterparts in the engineering arena. In California, for example, the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the engineering school at the university share joint classes and programs to help bridge the knowledge gap. In New York state, the Johnson Business School has created the Cornell Center for Technology Enterprise and Commercialisation, which helps students and alumni to develop ideas generated by its university's engineers and scientists. And at MIT, perhaps the country's foremost technology hub, links between the university and the business school have helped create more than 25,000 companies employing approximately 3 million people and generating as much wealth as the world's eleventh biggest economy.
In Europe, the EM Lyon business school has taken the view that the mix of the technical and commercial also needs fostering earlier on in a career than at the conventional MBA stage, and on an international basis. The school has partnered with the Krannert School of Management, the business school of one of the US' leading engineering schools, Purdue and one of China's foremost research universities Zhejiang for the Global Entrepreneurship Program (GEP). Described as a "pre-experience" programme aimed at first degree graduates with little or no work experience, the GEP is particularly targeted at potential students from scientific or engineering backgrounds.
Patrice Houdayer, the instigator of the programme at EM Lyon argues that it's essential to put any new invention into a business context as early as possible in its development and to start thinking of its potential, not just on a domestic, but a global scale. "Start-ups used to have to develop through a very definite series of steps, from garage to local to national to international," he says. "Today the internet has given them a platform to go worldwide almost immediately, but while that brings a whole new set of business opportunities it also presents new problems and challenges. The Global Entrepreneurship Program is designed to tackle this by giving them the requisite understanding of how to build a viable company and, at the same time, plugging them into a global network of contacts and showing them the different ways that business is conducted in major markets around the world."
By taking the "techie" out of the lab or workshop and equipping them with the commercial skills they so often miss out on, it's just possible that business schools may be developing, not just the next James Dyson, but even the next Jobs, Gates or Zuckerberg. But Patrice Houdayer warns that schools will never be able to develop something that isn't there in the first place: "It doesn't really matter when a student comes into an entrepreneurship programmes, whether it's at the MBA level or earlier on. What counts is that the person is ready for the experience and is going to do something with it. We can develop entrepreneurs but we'll never be able to manufacture them from scratch. It's down to the individual to do the analysis and decide whether they have the drive and the will to make a new enterprise work or whether a large corporate environment is where they should make their career."
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