Since last October I have been working as a business fellow for the London Technology Network (LTN) half a day a week. My role is to act as a contact person between my colleagues at the School of Crystallography, Birkbeck College in London, and industry to encourage and promote collaborations. At the moment, there are about 50 business fellows scattered across London, and LTN is looking to recruit about 60 more. LTN provides us with support and training, as well as a generous pro rata salary.
So what exactly does it entail to be a business fellow? Now that I have finished my initial training, I spend much of my few hours a week discussing my colleagues' research, finding out what they can offer to industry and what they want in return. I am beginning to be known in the department as someone with an understanding of how industry works (I have been asked to talk to PhD students in our department on the commercialisation of research) and useful connections. Only a minority of these contacts will lead to the creation of spinout companies or lucrative licensing opportunities. Many academics are simply looking for companies to co-sponsor research students or collaborate in research projects. As Peter Wolstenholme, a consultant at LTN, puts it: "Our aim is to increase the number and quality of interactions between London's high-tech researchers and industry, whatever these may be."
Of course, on the other side I have to build contacts with industry, and this is facilitated by LTN through the organisation of networking events. We now have a regular series of evening seminars with a short programme of talks from academic and industrial experts followed by a poster session. The latter is an opportunity for the business fellows to present the complete range of applicable research throughout their departments. So far these events have covered the topics of bioinformatics, image processing, and regenerative medicine.
I am also liaising with Birkbeck's technology transfer office. Business fellows and technology transfer officers have similar aims but bring different expertise to the job. The business fellows are the ones who understand the complex, specialised research in our departments; technology transfer officers have a broader knowledge of industry and how the business world works. Jane Perry, Birkbeck's research grants and contracts officer, who covers technology transfer issues, says: "The scheme will, I hope, give the central research support structure a direct link into the place where research actually happens, by someone who understands the science. This can be particularly important ... where it is not possible to have a corps of technology transfer staff covering all subjects."
Although all business fellows are established scientists, our positions range from young lecturers starting their first independent appointment to senior academics. I am, however, the only business fellow who is not a full-time academic. I also work as a freelance consultant and science writer, and am finding that such skills are very helpful in this new role, as I need to understand my colleagues' work quickly so I can explain it clearly to potential collaborators. The principal disadvantage for me is that I'm not in the department all the time, so I have to rely on electronic communication more.
All business fellows in their first term go through a training programme that is always useful and often great fun. They spend one evening each week learning about the commercialisation of technology. The programme includes sessions on intellectual property, legal implications, sources of advice, and how to spin out a company. I particularly enjoyed an exercise led by John Bates, from the London Business School, on picking winners from a list of potential start-up companies, and a talk on commercially viable diagnostic tests for the developing world. Further training events are planned in consultation with the fellows themselves: a half-day session on time management in June is bound to prove popular. We are also encouraged to turn to the network's experienced staff for specific advice.
Being a business fellow can boost your career in many ways. Having no formal business training, I am enjoying learning more about complex issues such as intellectual property rights. I am also building up my personal network of links with industry. As for Duncan Bain, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Disability Research and Innovation at University College London, it was important to him to bring his research closer to industry. "I worked in industry before I did my PhD, and I believe that there is little point in my research without its transfer to the marketplace," he says. "I already instinctively assume the role of entrepreneur, and I expect that the training programme will help me sharpen up my business skills."
There are many schemes for bringing academia and commerce together now that the UK Government is committed to funding technology transfer as the "third stream" of university activity alongside teaching and research. It is one of several regional initiatives funded through HEFCE's Science Enterprise Challenge fund, which is now part of the Higher Education Innovation Fund. However, LTN has some unique features. Kurt Haselwimmer, CEO of start-up company Cambridge Magnetic Refrigeration, put his finger on one of them at a recent training event: "It is a personal, individual approach--no-one is telling business fellows what to do."
This may be due to the fact that LTN has grown out of a small-scale project involving University College London and the London Business School. "Many academics at UCL are excellent researchers but have little idea of how their technology can be exploited," says Wolstenholme. So the Centre for Scientific Enterprise London was set up. Following its success LTN was established in 2002 with £4 million of funding from the Department of Trade and Industry, and the network hopes to be working with all the high-tech departments of London universities that were awarded 4, 5, and 5* ratings in the last Research Assessment Exercise by the end of 2003.
The network's aim is to cover all science and engineering departments in London where world-class research is performed, from aeronautical engineering to zoology. LTN is working closely with department heads and technology transfer officers to identify suitable candidates to appoint 30 more business fellows, and anyone who is interested may approach Wolstenholme directly via e-mail. "We are first and foremost looking for scientists who are interested in working with industry, and in learning more about how academia and industry can benefit each other," he says. "Business fellows will also be people with good interpersonal skills who interact well with industrialists as well as with their peers."