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Are we doing enough to help our Young Entrepreneurs?

A blog by Caledonia General Partners


Scientists often lack the entrepreneurial experience to turn their innovation into products. If they had been exposed to Young Enterprise at an earlier stage things could be different.

Today, I received an e-mail from a student asking me how he could take his career forward.

It’s gratifying that this sometimes happens as a result of recommendations from people I’ve helped or taught as part of the Young Enterprise Scheme programme or who have been to my workshops at some time. However, this carries some responsibility with it for obvious reasons.

The student was in the first year of his PhD at a Scottish university and had, even at his relatively young age, good experience, having worked at a top Scottish research institute and abroad where he had built up some expertise in bio-imaging.

However, he told me that he had come to the conclusion that too much money is spent on- and too many human resources are dedicated to pure research and that there were precious few really useful products generated from all of this effort. He also had concluded that in drug development, the traditional ways of target identification and screening of candidate molecules was too slow and costly for both patients and pharmaceutical companies to benefit.

It was his ambition to work on new strategies and to innovate the drug development process. Thirdly, he said that he recognised that “95% of effort was spent on 5% of the market” and he wanted to work in what he called the “blue ocean or the 95% space for new technologies not currently served”. His challenge was that he didn’t have a clear plan about where to go and what to do next and he asked me for my thoughts. Whatshould I have replied?

Firstly, though flattering to be asked, I’m probably not the best person to help, but that said, these were my thoughts.

– I suggested that not all laboratories were as successful at translating science as others and that although this might prove difficult, he needed to find one where translational science was as important as research itself if that’s what he wanted to do.

Whilst detractors might point out that the PhD is a training programme and that you need to walk before you can run and that working in a top lab was an important keystone to be taken seriously, some students have told me that they have fallen foul of their academic supervisors each time they showed signs of faltering from the 24/7 pursuit of research excellence and had looked at alternatives to a research career.

I’ve also worked with scientists who, instead of going with what they had, had insisted that every one of Koch’s Postulates was fulfilled before considering the commercial potential and even then when they did, still devoted their time to research rather than product development.

Secondly, I suggested my student embrace as many people with expertise and an interest in translational science as he could and to learn from the good and bad that he encountered.

Thirdly, I suggested that he use the principles of 6 degrees of separation and build as many contacts as he could knowing that each contact was likely to lead to another productive encounter. I gave him three of four names better experienced or more relevant than me to get the ball rolling,

Then I suggested that my student embrace every opportunity to learn the basic skills of enterprise and business, before he needed to actually practice them. In Scotland, there seem to be good programmes at the Hunter School at Strathclyde University and if he can find a project,I suggested that he look at an Enterprise Fellowship scheme to see if he could develop a business plan whilst being paid to develop it.The Saltire Fellowship is clearly a good scheme and Marblar is creating some respectable impact across the UK.

Finally, I suggested that he should not ignore the basics and to identify what was his from his research and to pigeon hole what he thought he might need in the future as well as what he would have to seek permission to use if he chose to pursue the commercialisation of his chosen field of research.

I’m sure that there are many more things I could have said, but I was left wondering if in Scotland (or beyond) we are still doing enough for students like mine, who recognise that research, whilst a noble pursuit, is not the be all and end all in itself?

Recently, I’ve been working with two colleagues in Boston to build a conference which we have called MASScot. It’s about what Scotland and the East Coast can learn from each other to create sustainable biotechnology start-ups and how we can get the missing investment to develop these through to something that can create both new drugs, services and impact through better healthcare and economic benefit through company growth and job creation.We’ll do it if we can get sponsorship to run the Conference, not if we can’t.

Please write to me at [email protected] to tell me what we should be focused on and/or what I should tell my student. It would be good to hear from you.

Happy New Year


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