Learning how to turn an idea into commerical success

Idea taking off

Source: © Pablo Blasberg/Ikon Images

Entrepreneurship schemes, societies and competitions all help students explore commercial possibilities

Turning new scientific knowledge into products and services that can both solve problems and generate profit is one of the biggest challenges that entrepreneurial researchers face. Whether planning a career in industry or aiming to create an innovative start-up, it’s important students are equipped with entrepreneurship skills. Companies want new recruits to begin applying their chemistry knowledge to real world situations immediately and for those pursuing an academic career, showing commercial impact is an effective way to advance. The additional income from any spin-out company or patent license is also welcomed by universities – the University of Oxford is estimated to have earned £143 million from the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, and the University of Florida has made more than $300 million (£249 million) from the precursor to the modern sports drinks industry – Gatorade.

First steps

The good news is that there has never been a better time to get involved in entrepreneurship, with unparalleled support available, and universities are excellent places to test your ideas and gain skills in a low-risk environment. While many universities offer standalone modules on entrepreneurship for students of any discipline, there are also now degree programmes that offer ‘with entrepreneurship’, which involves taking several modules each year in a structured manner. At postgraduate level, masters’ courses at several universities combine scientific and business knowledge.

Even if you’re not on a formal course, there are still plenty of opportunities to develop your entrepreneurial abilities. Research into entrepreneurship education shows that extracurricular activities are a great way to gain skills, as they are not limited by course constraints and the need for assessment, so can focus on learning by doing. The EntreComp Framework is a useful summary of the skills you may need, and is split into three areas: Ideas and Opportunities (covering skills such as creativity and valuing ideas), Resources (including motivation and perseverance) and Into Action (taking the initiative, working with others).

Many universities have entrepreneurship societies that offer workshops, speaker events and hackathons so you can gauge whether entrepreneurship might be for you. The global Young Entrepreneurs Scheme competition based at the University of Nottingham, UK, is ideal for taking the first steps to understanding the commercialisation process as it involves developing business plans for a hypothetical idea. Competitions like this can help with important aspects of entrepreneurship such as networking with people with complimentary skills, understanding intellectual property, and (perhaps most importantly) recognising opportunities and understanding your market – who and how many might use your product or service, and why it is better than existing solutions. The I-Corps programme for scientists, run by the US National Science Foundation, recommends having at least 100 phone calls or meetings with experts and potential customers to get a true feel for the commercial possibilities of an idea.

Development stages

Once you’ve got a promising idea, there’s also support available to turn it into a viable business. While chemistry start-ups can be capital intensive, smaller pots of money are still useful for advancing your idea to a stage where it could be attractive to external funders – by achieving milestones such as filing IP or completing market research. Many universities run Venture Competitions where prizes are typically £10,000–20,000. These competitions may also introduce your idea to potential customers or collaborators.

Incubators and accelerators can also be helpful. Incubators are generally subsidised lab spaces with shared resources to keep costs low so you can concentrate on research and development; virtual incubators allow you to network with like-minded people. Accelerator programmes are intense, short programmes designed to build your idea to a point where it might attract investment, often with a ‘demo day’ for potential funders at the end. The Y-Combinator, founded in the US in 2005 to support tech start-ups, is the basis for many of the accelerator models, but models vary. Inside academia, universities may have accelerators open to their staff, students and recent graduates. For example, Techcelerate of Imperial College is a four-month programme that has created creating 62 start-ups since being founded in 2018, and the University of Edinburgh’s start-up accelerator for sustainability related businesses is conveniently run over the summer when students have more free time. Outside of academia, accelerators are run by organisations such as Nesta, NatWest and TechX (a clean energy accelerator), with recent data from the Centre for Entrepreneurs estimating there are 314 accelerators and 440 incubators in the UK in total.

There are many successful stories out there. For example graphene alone has spawned businesses who have found novel applications from Concretene – a graphene-containing concrete with improved strength, durability and lower carbon footprint – to PhD graduate Vivek Koncherry’s venture Graphene Innovations that makes composite materials for use in space.

Even if your venture fails to take off, or you decide entrepreneurship is not for you, you will likely find your new skills help your CV stand out to potential employers, and not just in science – they are particularly valued by technology, management consulting and retail firms.