UK science ranks highly compared to the rest of the world in terms of papers and citations, yet according to the government's 2002 spending review, until recently Britons have had less in the way of patenting and spinout activity than some major European competitors. However, things are starting to change and this means more opportunities for young scientists to gain managerial and entrepreneurship skills and to find financial support in order to realise the commercial potential of their research.
Biotechnology clusters are springing up around the UK. "Clusters are a combination of wonderful science and entrepreneurial spirit," says Alan Barrell, professor of enterprise at the University of Luton and Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Cambridge Entrepreneurship Centre. The East of England is a classic example, having the highest concentration of biobusiness activity in Europe, according to the Cambridge-MIT Institute ( CMI), a government-funded collaboration between Cambridge University in the UK and the U.S. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
And the city of Cambridge represents its hub, with a strong science base that comprises not just the university, but also Addenbrooke's Hospital, the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, the Sanger Centre, the Babraham Institute, and the European Bioinformatics Institute, along with over 250 biotechnology companies.
More Than Just Science
But science is not enough. Cambridge is fortunate to have an abundance of the other factors required to help biobusiness boom, the first of which is training to turn scientists into entrepreneurs. The CMI offers a variety of interdisciplinary training opportunities. For undergraduates, there is a Research Opportunities Programme aimed at 'training a new breed of innovators and business leaders,' according to CMI. For graduates there is a new range of master's degrees in areas such as Bio-Enterprise, Technology Policy, and Managing Innovation Strategically.
These courses, for which some bursaries are available, are intended to provide the skills required to take 'innovation from the lab to the market,' say course organisers. Shefaly Yogendra, a Technology Policy MPhil student believes that the CMI courses are very effective. For example, "MBAs do not really grasp the subtlety of science policy," she says. She believes that the "combination of business and policy skills" she is developing "will be very useful in changing the direction of science."
CMI works closely with support organisations such as the university Entrepreneurship Centre. Centres such as these were awarded funding in October 1999 by the government's £25 million Science Enterprise Challenge competition, which originally set up eight Science Enterprise Centres. Now numbering 13, these centres involve more than 50 UK universities. The Cambridge Entrepreneurship Centre (CEC) is attached to the Judge Institute of Management and offers courses, placements, and workshops for undergraduates.
The centre also runs postgraduate modules which form part of the Judge Institute's MBA, and the CMI's Master in Bioscience Enterprise, plus courses such as Basics of Building a Business which are open to all students and staff of the university. "One of our core values is to involve seasoned entrepreneurs in the teaching of our courses--they have the credibility to teach entrepreneurship by sharing their experience and inspiring our future entrepreneurs," says Jo Mills, programme manager at CEC.
Regional Networks Aid Commercialisation
Like many universities, Cambridge has a specialised technology-transfer department where professionals are available to help bio-entrepreneurs consider the available commercialisation options. But a number of regional networks have also sprung up to provide contacts and guidance, including Biology in Business ( BIB), the East of England Biotechnology Initiative ( ERBI), and the Cambridge Network. Such organisations are crucial in bringing together scientists, business managers, property developers, and financial investors. "The number one rule is networking, networking, networking," advises Jens Lapinski, former president of Biology in Business. BIB also points out that competitions such as BIB's own 'Pitch Your Idea' ( PYI) are definitely worth entering, not just for the cash they can generate but also for the valuable experience they offer.
In Cambridge, as elsewhere in the UK, the formation of biotechnology clusters has led to the development of 'incubators.' "This is essentially the extension of the concept of the nest into the business world," explains Barrell. "The nest is an early-stage environment where companies can learn, grow, and be mentored." The Babraham Incubator near Cambridge offers laboratory and office space within a specialised environment, plus networking opportunities and access to financial and marketing advice.
Support infrastructure become increasingly important as one's business venture moves up the ladder of investment. Whether you are at the very early stage of finding seed capital--finance required for developing 'proof of principle'--or at the later level of 'start-up,' there are some key funding resources to explore, both regionally and nationally. The University Challenge Fund ( UCF), for example, is a local venture capitalist fund that can offer up to £60K research funding and £250K seed funding, as well as support. The fund prides itself on presenting less risk than is often the case when approaching other venture capitalists given that most of UCF's funds do not have to be repaid.
City of Angels
Most regions also have 'business angels,' groups of individuals with relatively small amounts of money to invest in early-stage companies--you can expect them to come up with approximately the first £0.5 million to get a company started. The Cambridge area is particularly well-served, with the Great Eastern Investment Forum, the Cambridge Angels, and the Cambridge Capital Group to turn to. As well as providing funding, business angels can offer advice, contacts, and practical help.
A new angel initiative, the Cambridge Enterprise Accelerator, aims to provide considerable private investment for companies linked to university research. Angel consortia vary in how hands-on they are and how formal their membership is. Once off the ground and attempting to break into global markets, companies often pursue venture capital funding, and here Cambridge-based biobusinessmen and women again have a regional option, in the form of the Cambridge Gateway Fund.
Of course those lucky, or strategic-minded, enough to have landed at the heart of a cluster such as Cambridge can still look further afield for advice and support. On a national level, the research councils have a number of initiatives aimed at encouraging the commercialisation of research. "The BBSRC provides a range of training opportunities that help develop the skills necessary to successfully transfer research to the commercial sector," says Karen Lewis, Head of Business and Innovation at the BBSRC. The Biotechnology Young Entrepreneurs Scheme--a programme run jointly by the BBSRC and the University of Nottingham--introduces postgraduate and postdoctoral scientists to the skills necessary to commercialise science and write a business plan. For scientists at all levels the research councils run a BioScience Business Plan Competition to increase awareness and 'help the formation of new business ventures' by providing training, mentoring, and advice on knowledge transfer, innovation, and business issues.
In addition, the BBSRC's Industry Fellowship Scheme and Knowledge Transfer Partnerships are designed to establish and enhance links between industry and academia. This is taken a step further by the Small Business Research Initiative ( SBRI) which enables small high-tech firms to develop new research capacities and support the development of their business.
Another source of development funding may be charitable organisations. Cancer Research UK owns a specialist technology-transfer company called Cancer Research Technology Ltd ( CRT) that encourages start-up companies to get partnered products onto the market. Catalyst BioMedica Ltd is a similar initiative, being a business subsidiary of the Wellcome Trust established to provide funding and technology-transfer support.
But before you embark on a business venture, it is worth weighing up whether you've got what it takes. "You need to think very carefully about entering into the jungle that is business and commercial capital," says Barrell. To create and realise new business opportunities, you will need to be both an opportunity seeker and a problem solver. You will also need "determination, self-belief, and a willingness to roll up your sleeves and tackle anything," explains Nigel Wild, managing director of the Oxford Biobusiness Centre. And remember there is more than one way to take the plunge. For example, it is possible to exploit innovative research whilst remaining in academia, rather than leaving the ivory tower entirely. "You have to ask yourself, do you really want to [go into] business ... it's very different," Barrell warns.