From Academic to Entrepreneur
Some academics dream to become entrepreneurs early on in their career, however, the decision to switch to a distinctly different career path and associated risks may prevent them from embarking on the journey. We have asked researchers that have decided to step forward in that direction about the tipping point and their motivation.
The tech accelerator journey
There are many business accelerators in the UK, more than 181 according to the Entrepreneurial Handbook that help start-ups and entrepreneurs to grow an early-stage business in a short space of time. An accelerator is usually defined as a fixed term, cohort-based programme usually running from 3 months up to a year and as well as offering investment, they offer exposure and access to early investors and experienced mentors. They can also offer specific legal and accountancy support for technology businesses that typically take advantage of these accelerators.[i]
Most universities encourage their students to have a taste of being entrepreneurial. A series of events, ‘From academia to entrepreneur’ run by Entrepreneur First (EF) (one of the leading accelerators) in collaboration with universities aims to inspire academics. The events challenge Master’s and PhD students in particular to think about what’s possible when they use their rare technical background to build a start-up. Entrepreneurs who ‘walked the walk’ run these events – e.g., Dr Amber Hill named one of the Top 100 Most Influential Women in Engineering by the Financial Times. Last year at University College London, Dr Hill (UCL alumna and CEO of R.grid, which streamlines medical research processes through intelligent software) shared her own story[ii][iii] highlighting that ‘Entrepreneurship is about change – solving problems and revolutionising existing systems.’ Addressing practical questions – e.g., how to settle on an idea, what do investors care about and how to find a co-founder that propels the team – are invaluable to early career researchers who want to make the transition from academia to running a start-up.
Entrepreneur First[iv] is one of the first and most intense accelerators to forge individuals into entrepreneurs, building formidable teams focusing on technology and solving significant problems in global markets. It is a highly competitive process, with funding of £80k for start-ups created during the programme in exchange for equity. The access to hands-on mentors, experts and investors and the intensity of the programme drives exponential growth of the start-up and technology development. EF runs accelerators all over the world. In Asia, one of the EF finalists TeOra translates biofilm research into an industry solution as a start-up with a sustainability mission replacing synthetics from crude oil in a range of industries. Using biofilms as a factory, microfluidics and AI, TeOra replaces synthetic products by genetic reprogramming to design smart microorganisms in weeks to months instead of years.[v]
Start-ups at times look towards the US to hatch their innovative ideas. The US based IndieBio accelerator has helped Brightcure, the next generation microbiome femcare company, to grow. The CEO, Chiara Heide introduced the first prototype of her bioactive cream at the IndieBio New York Demo Day debut.[vi] Her story provided her with motivation, having personally suffered from chronic urinary tract infections (UTI) and discovering that so does every second woman worldwide. Being unable to find sustainable alternative to a vicious cycle of antibiotic treatments and becoming frustrated with this situation, Chiara used her scientific background to look into new solutions and started a fem tech business.[vii] Chiara explains,
“IndieBio is known as the world’s largest science accelerator with an amazing network. They have great founders and companies in their portfolio and have a lot of experience in the sector. Their network and experience in the space is extremely helpful for early-stage companies like ours. Next to their pre-seed investment they offer equipped lab space, which is another great advantage and a must-have for most biotech start-ups. Their global orientation facilitates international partnerships”.
Closer to home again, the ICURe (Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research) programme trains, funds and supports early-career researchers to explore the market for products or services based on their research, science or technology. This helps to accelerate the transfer of university technologies ‘out of the lab’. Up to £35,000 of funding support from Innovate UK is available to validate commercially promising ideas in the market. Universities from across the North of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland have joined the ICURe NxNW (North and North West Universities Consortium) programme. Their researchers benefit by gaining market knowledge and exploring consumer needs as well as having the opportunity to pitch their technologies to investors seeking financial and non-financial support and guidance with their propositions. Investors like the fact that ICURe involves real-world feedback and validation from the market and end-users.
Since hosting the first ICURe event in the North in 2019, University of Liverpool has helped Dr Srijan Jindal through the ICURe journey. He comments on the invaluable learning accrued as seeing the ‘big picture’ of research in commercial world and understanding the route to market when developing a rapid UTI diagnostic kit investment proposition. Dr Adam Dundas, Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham, was awarded a place on an ICURe scheme to speak to world leading companies about a market-disrupting technology, BACTIGON, a polymer coating that prevents bacterial biofilm formation without the need of any toxic leaching material. He said the experience vastly improved his communication skills and understanding of requirements for product development in a commercial setting. Adam explains,
“Driving translational research to move a disruptive technology from the laboratory into industry is a huge motivation for me starting this journey. A key challenge to this work was to be able to demonstrate the benefits to industry in a clear and concise manner. This led to a large market validation project identifying future key industrial partners to develop our anti-biofilm coating in exciting new areas”.
Dr Peter Chater, Co-Founder and CEO of Aelius Biotech describes the support he received from the ICURe programme and his entrepreneurial journey,
“I had worked on developing models of the human digestive tract during my PhD, and they had been really useful for our work. I didn’t just want to see these methods sit in a dusty, unread thesis, and I wanted to see how they could be helpful to other people. I took part in a BBSRC Enterprise Fellowship, and the ICURe programme, and learned a lot about the idea of ‘value propositions’, and understanding who the customer is and what they want. For our customers it was integrated, physiologically relevant models of digestion, mucus permeation and epithelial absorption. Learning this allowed us to develop and market models through our spin-out company Aelius Biotech. This has been an exciting, challenging and rewarding journey. I think academia and business can be complementary. The scientific method is a useful approach to tackling any problem – even business ones, and understanding why you are doing something and what it’s value is, is as useful in academia as it is in business”.
Kirsty Smitten, a PhD researcher from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Chemistry and Forbes 30 Under 30 Science and Healthcare 2020 comments,
“Antimicrobial resistance is currently responsible for 700,000 annual fatalities and failure to address the issue may result in 10 million deaths per year by 2050 costing the global economy £66 trillion. My inspiration for this research stems from a drive to reduce these deaths; to do this I have synthesised two compounds that are active on the highest priority pathogens outlined by the World Health Organisation. To ensure there was a place in the market for our compounds and to de-risk the commercialisation pathway we applied for an Innovate UK funded accelerator programme (ICURe). The programme allowed us to validate our technology in the marketplace as well as talk to potential customers, suppliers, and partners. We have had significant commercial interest during the programme and it is looking likely we will form a spin-out company in the new year to develop the technology. The challenges we have met along the way primarily reside in funding; lack of funding slows the progression of research. However, the market information gained and connections made on the accelerator programme has given us more chance of securing those bigger grants to take our compounds to market. This will help us to achieve our end goal of reducing the predicted deaths caused by AMR and improving patient and carer quality of life”.
NBIC works with the Alderley Park Accelerator who offer start-up support to early stage life science and healthcare businesses. The programme helps individuals and teams with just a spark of an idea and start-ups or companies looking to launch new innovations, and comprises a 2 ½ day pre-accelerator workshop to introduce tools, methodologies and approaches specifically tailored to the life sciences industry to design, test and de-risk the business model hypotheses. The follow-on competitive 8-week accelerator programme provides a combination of workshops and 1-2-1 coaching to enable companies to discover a profitable, scalable and sustainable business model based around the Lean Start-up methodology. Participants are expected to spend significant time ‘outside the building’, validating their assumptions and testing their hypothesis by engaging with customers. Our next pre-accelerator programme will run in January 2021. NBIC can offer tailored support to successful accelerator competitors from NBIC partner universities, which build on biofilm related opportunities.
Andy Roberts, Venture Development Manager for the Alderley Park Accelerator programme comments on working with NBIC and the NBIC community,
“We are delighted to work with innovative and entrepreneurial academics associated with NBIC. We work with several academic spinout companies, at all stages of their lifecycle, and they are valuable members of our life science community. As experts in their respective fields, academics have very often solved one of the biggest challenges faced by early-stage companies – developing the underlying technological innovation. However, the quality we see take these innovations forward most successfully all have the key quality of open-mindedness. The teams that we see thrive the most, are often those who will adopt a ‘beginner’s mindset’ when it comes to commercialising that technology. What this means in practice is ‘getting out of the building’ to understand what customers need and want, then adapting the technology around these needs. Sometimes this requires a rethink of the final technology and it is fantastic to see entrepreneurial academics coming back from customer discovery interviews, having had ‘lightbulb moments”.
Motivation to Become an Entrepreneur
The intensity and high pressure of the accelerator programmes and the acquired new ways of seeing how commercial reality impacts science and technology, brings academic careers onto crossroads. Dr Adam Glen, a senior researcher talks about his motivation, having completed the Alderley Park Accelerator and currently a Founder in residence on the Entrepreneur First programme,
“Frustration with current solutions drives a lot of what I do. Then doing something about it, not settling for the status quo”.
Alice Bentinck, Entrepreneur First CPO & Co-Founder comments on the differences between the Entrepreneur First companies that make it and those that don’t,
“The difference is in the founders’ mindset. Not the smartest people, not the best idea or the strength of the team — in the early days of building a start-up, it’s all about growth mindset open to learning as well as grit, determination and resilience”.[viii]
The routes to achieving entrepreneurial success and academic excellence can differ and the qualities one needs to display are also somewhat different; the way of thinking of an entrepreneur is sometimes intense, almost contrary to a collegiate academic path. There is a notion of unpredictability in entrepreneurship, a highly competitive environment and a need for decision-making based on multifaceted and imperfect data and people, appreciating that every failure creates a new opportunity. This can challenge some academics who have achieved success in a systematic, linear fashion and need to unlearn old principles and adapt to a new way of being. Accelerator programmes can offer an insight into this new world. Once through the programme, a personal decision arises in terms of which path to choose for your idea and yourself.
[iv] Entrepreneur First invest in talented and ambitious people to achieve extraordinary results, having helped more than 1,000 people create more than 200 companies, worth around $1.5 billion. Every six months they run a full-time programme (they believe building a successful company requires full-time commitment) in Europe and Asia to find a co-founder, develop an idea, and start a technology company from scratch. It is a competitive programme that creates highly effective, intense environment designed to bring people together and help them realise their potential to impact the world. The programme has two stages: Form as a fast-track to find a co-founder and develop and refine idea and Launch where the team is funded and begin building the company. Some people join with a clear sense of what they want to build; others join us while they are still exploring. Either way, the final idea has to exploit their personal competitive advantage – the “Edge”. At the end of Form, over 80% of the cohort are in a team and begin preparing for the pitch to the Investment Committee and join Launch (only the 40-50% get there). Once in Launch, and having received the first investment, there are three months of structured training and work with advisors to accelerate growth. The culmination is a Demo Day, where teams present their companies to the world’s best investors.
Dr Katerina Steventon, NBIC Senior Innovation Consultant