The future of the chemical sciences rests on increasing support for innovation

The future of the chemical sciences rests on increasing support for innovation, agree the RSC and the Chemistry Leadership Council (CLC) who have joined forces to review the climate for chemistry-related spin-out ventures from UK universities.

’Financial pressures to curtail costs, coupled with consolidation of ownership of the British chemical industry have eroded its collective ability to be an engine room for future invention and innovation,’ warn the two organisations in a DTI-sponsored report to be published in March. ’New mechanisms for the regeneration of the industry need to be established and fostered.’

The RSC and CLC set out to identify factors determining the success of new ventures that exploit the chemical sciences. Their final report, including an account of current activities and initiatives in the UK along with case histories illustrating successes and failures, is intended to form the base for a national governmental strategy to encourage new ventures.

Among the key messages in the report is the need for improved availability of suitable cost effective incubator facilities offering access to wet-chemistry facilities. These are expensive to set up, but small spin-outs could share buildings and facilities in science parks or universities, suggest the authors.

Alongside this is an urgent need for improved access to follow-on funding. ’Start-up funding is difficult enough!’ says Rodney Townsend, director of science & technology at the RSC, an author of the report. Spin-outs can face funding gaps at the intermediate size investment (?0.5-2m), resulting either in complete failure or in the company becoming, in the report’s words: ’one of the "living dead" with little prospect of success.’

The authors flagged a general lack of experience in business management among academics. Possible solutions included in the report include the secondment of commercial managers to spin-out companies and/or mentoring from successful industry chiefs.

The report also notes entrepreneurship is undervalued by the research assessment exercise (RAE). ’The government needs to rebalance the RAE to recognise specifically entrepreneurial activity,’ said Townsend.

Bea Perks