Creating your own company is to be lauded , says Mervyn Jones
The problem with academics is that they are too academic, goes the oft-stated view of our university researchers by others. The comment is often followed by a judgment of an academic’s inability to understand the challenges of industry, that they work to interminable timescales and that risk is an anathema to them. While I’m sure such reflections do apply to some academics, just as they also apply to some in the private sector, such simplistic statements belie the growing interest in Scottish universities to not only apply research to industrial commercialisation but for academics to actually do this themselves.
This year’s Converge Challenge, the Scottish university company creation competition, has attracted a remarkable 85 per cent year-on-year increase in applications, with 111 senior researchers, postgraduates and undergraduates looking to start up their own companies within the next 12 months. The proposals cover all aspects of Scotland’s industrial landscape from the creative arts to energy and from life sciences to software. The applications also reveal a growing understanding of the characteristics required to take a start-up company forward, to engage with potential customers and understand the market potential, and the personal risks implied in doing this.
When an academic leaves the secure surrounds of a university with the sole intention of creating a company, recognising that the early years may be tough (but seeing the potential future rewards) you know that they get it. But we are not all of this ilk. It is equally important that great innovators in our universities, who do not wish to take the personal risk of creating a company, understand that they have to leave it to others to take the proposition forward.
Last year’s winner of Converge Challenge, Saccade Diagnostics from the University of Aberdeen, made the wise decision to bring in a highly-committed CEO to drive the company forward.
This distinction between entrepreneur and academic or manager is not unique to the university environment. Back in 2006, American psychologists Hao Zhao and Scott Seibert described the very different personality traits of business managers and entrepreneurs. They commented on the high levels of networking and work-ethic of the latter, and also of a level of suspicion. These are also people who accept that things can go wrong and, when they do, the importance of recognising the failure, learning and moving on.
These are not traits of all of us and we may not all feel comfortable carrying out these activities ourselves. However, it is incumbent on us to create in our universities and the wider Scottish society an empathy with these traits if we are to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit. Many universities are introducing business incubators, support programmes, internal competitions (many of which feed into the Converge Challenge) and the like to create an environment in which creating your own company is not a bizarre exception, but something to be lauded. Some of the internal hurdles to company creation within the institutions are also easing – it is difficult enough starting a business without having to fight your own institution.
The growth of entrepreneurial mentoring programmes, such as the Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise Fellowships, backs up this belief. A wider political appreciation of what it takes to create your own company would also be appreciated; no more of the “I’d like to support, but what if some of them fail?”
So what of the future? Let’s not kid ourselves that everything is sweetness and light and that all of the institutions and agencies in the ecosystem are in the place we would want them to be in. Converge Challenge will be spending the forthcoming years encouraging the whole of the university sector to play a part, to have the support vehicles in-house which underpin an entrepreneurial spirit and to lessen the hurdles to company creation. You only have to look at the number of potential start-ups being generated this year by such as Edinburgh University (as a large institution) or the Glasgow School of Art (as a small institution) to get a feel for the capability of the system.
We shall also be encouraging, with Firstport, the development of the social enterprise agenda for those whose propositions or personal expectations fit better into the not-for-profit arena.
All told, while the system is by no means perfect, there is a growing sense that entrepreneurialism is becoming an accepted part of our university landscape and of the critical value that it provides for our economic future.
• Mervyn Jones is chair of Converge Challenge www.convergechallenge.com