Academics are turning research in to money

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
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Entrepreneurial spirit is rising in universities, says Olga Kozlova

Lets’ start with a basic premise; academics make good entrepreneurs. Not all of them, it’s true, but more than a lot of people believe. A survey in the United States by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation established that 16 per cent of academics run businesses that they founded, while a Financial Times survey in the UK revealed that academics are five times more likely to be entrepreneurs than are members of the general public.

Why is this and what can be done to optimise this reality? In many ways, it is easy to appreciate why academics can develop into entrepreneurs. Many are highly motivated individuals, focused on pursuing research into new areas across a wide range of disciplines.

As part of their work they are applying commercially relevant skills, for example managing budgets and leading teams.

It is not, therefore, a huge leap to take the next step of selling their research. After all, research is all about identifying and creating something new and every single product that we use had to be invented at some time.

Introducing incremental innovations

“New” is what sells. Take mobile phones as an example. A new concept in the early 1980s, they have progressed from being the size of a house brick, the sole purpose of which was to allow someone to make a phone call on the move, to being, effectively, a computer in the palm of your hand with multiple functions. It’s the desire of humans to have fresh innovations that sees a constant stream of new mobile phones being developed with ever-expanding capabilities, while the core “call” function remains central to its purpose. Humans seeks things that are “new” and that is what academic research is all about, whether it be mobile phone technology or lifesaving medical devices.

Being entrepreneurial for an academic is wider than simply forming a company. It can also be about introducing incremental innovations – such as applications for mobile phones – through working with industry. Such collaborations are beneficial for both parties, with the academic receiving financial support to enable the research and the business gaining an edge on its competitors as a result of the innovations it can apply from the academic’s output.

Support for academics to flourish as entrepreneurs is vital. Universities must provide a framework that encourages developments without imposing unduly restrictive limitations. However, striking a balance on key issues such as who owns the rights to intellectual property require careful consideration in order to ensure both parties receive due recognition.

The Converge Challenge

Scotland is well-placed in this respect as it has a range of supportive commercial departments within its research universities, where experienced staff work with budding entrepreneurs and their nascent companies, to turn research into commercially viable propositions.

A second key support is financial and much comes from commercial organisations, while there is also valuable support from organisations such as the Scottish Funding Council. This body has pledged £525,000 of funding over the next three years, in addition to Scotland’s eight research-intensive universities pledging financial support to the tune of £360,000 over the same period, for Scotland’s flagship entrepreneurial business competition – the Converge Challenge.

The third key support is the provision of platforms where the academic entrepreneurs can demonstrate their vision and delivery of new products and discoveries. Over the years, Scotland has produced platforms such as the Scottish Institute for Enterprise, the John Logie Baird Awards for Innovation, Connect Springboard, Interface: the Knowledge Connection for Business and the Converge Challenge.

The importance of the Converge Challenge has been acknowledged by John Swinney MSP, cabinet secretary for finance, employment and sustainable growth, who will be the keynote speaker at the final to be held on 24 September.

He has stated: “The Converge Challenge programme represents an opportunity for Scotland’s students and researchers to develop their knowledge and commercial skills, while providing them with validation and confidence to encourage their entrepreneurial spirit.”

For such a small country, we can be proud of our ability to create and innovate. It appears to be embedded within our higher education population that we produce so many budding entrepreneurs looking to develop their ideas into full-blown businesses.

• Dr Olga Kozlova is director of converge challenge and enterprise creation manager at Heriot Watt University Twitter: @ConvergeC

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