Turning academic ideas into businesses

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By Neil Harris

Lots of ideas are produced every day by people in universities. What happens to them? Some are just ideas, theories and academic thoughts. They may be passed on to others or used to teach the next generation of students. Many have a practical application. A few have the potential to generate cash and the capacity to be developed into viable businesses. Eventually these can lead to major opportunities for employment and career development, especially for the highly qualified.

Most universities now have a unit with people who have the skills to support the transfer of ideas into a business. The idea is assessed. The potential market is researched. Original intellectual property is identified and where appropriate patents are taken out. Sources of funds are considered and, if all of that goes well, the idea develops to become an embryonic business at what is called the incubator phase.

The beginning of an idea

At the University of Manchester there is an Intellectual Property organisation employing people who are actively involved in this process. ‘We seek intellectual property within the university and sometimes are also offered ideas from outside' says a spokesman. ‘Most of the ideas are generated by people with PhDs. Sometimes the idea is licensed to an existing business but when the business is developed as a spin off from the university those whose idea it was often become the chief operating officers, research directors and marketing managers. They begin as small businesses in small premises where the participants do everything that is required. It might be your idea but if a desk needs to be bought or the post posted you have to do it'.

When funds are provided by venture capital organisations they may put in an experienced professional as a senior manager, which can include the finance and marketing directors, people whose skills complement those of the academics involved.

Research parks

There are now hundreds of spin off businesses from ideas generated in universities. Some of these develop to the extent where they need premises and often they use the facilities of research parks. Research parks are not new. Some have been around since the early eighties. But during the lifetime of this government they have grown dramatically due to government encouragement and funding.

There are now over 80 Research Parks in the UK, from Aberdeen to Plymouth and together they employ more than 90,000 people, a large proportion of whom are highly qualified researchers. Companies can rent premises on one of these parks. It may be just an office for a start-up incubator situation but more established firms have their own purpose built premises. The Science Parks at Aston and Cambridge are huge, with around 100 companies each. ‘Biocity' at Nottingham has over 50, but many, such as those at Cranfield, Herriot Watt and Brunel Universities are middle range with around 35 organisations in residence. Sprinkled in among the tenants you also find research activities of some big companies such as BOC and BP as it gives them access to high quality researchers. The web site of the UK Science Parks Association www.ukspa.org.uk gives lots if information on what is going on and where. It includes profiles of all the research parks and details of their tenants.

A large proportion of firms on research parks are biotechnology related companies. York Science Park has 80 bioscience companies employing 3,800 people. The breadth of their expertise is staggering. It ranges across drug discovery, plant genetics, medical devices, wound healing, technological equipment and environmental consultancies. Pro-cure Therapeutics, for example, is a spin off from ideas generated in Yorkshire Cancer Research. It started in business just six years ago and has been successful in identifying and cataloguing cells from prostate cancers that can be the target for a new range of drugs. Almost all of the senior staff in that company possess a PhD.

Bioniqs, another York spin off, developed from ideas generated at York and Cambridge Universities that resulted in patents in the field of solvent technology. Having started in business four years ago they have grown to have their own purpose built facilities and are advising on and selling solvents for industrial processes that are non-toxic, non-flammable and biodegradable. In 2006 they came to a licensing agreement with Merk, who now manufacture and distribute many of their products.

But York also has numerous IT and Digital companies on its Research Park. They cover networks, information, communications technology plus inventions developed for sale to the electronics and digital industries. You do not need to be a biological scientist to have a commercial idea. Most areas of science and engineering provide these opportunities and some academics from other university faculties have also been successful.

Success stories

Wherever you look there are exciting developments going on. Hydrogen Solar at Surrey Research Park are developing solar panels that produce hydrogen using sunlight and water. Their vision is of vehicles that run on hydrogen and refuel all over the place, just as we currently do with petrol.

The research parks do more than just provide accommodation for companies who become tenants. They also organise events that offer opportunities for small businesses to network with one another. They sometimes mount trade fairs where businesses can market their wares, and they assist with access to potential investors.

Not all ideas that are spun off from a university are successful but if you join one that is you could soon be a very senior manager in a fast developing organisation. It means taking your thoughts from just being ideas to becoming a real commercial activity. It means starting at the bottom with hardly any staff and doing everything that is required. The opportunities for career development are enormous and the technology transfer units most universities now have to encourage fledgling businesses coupled with the facilities of research parks provide every opportunity to be successful.

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