Gareth Griffiths and Dominic James came in 'second place' at last year's Young Entrepreneurs Scheme competition, set up by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in the U.K. They describe the process, and explain why entering the competition was an extremely rewarding experience.
The YES (Young Entrepreneurs Scheme) has been set up by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council with the aim of encouraging young scientists to exploit their ideas and research commercially. The problem it aims to tackle is that in academia people become too focused, so much so that they fail to appreciate the potential marketable value of their research. A great many potential products are overlooked.
Information about the scheme was sent to universities, and although we received a circular e-mail with details, there was a general lack of awareness and little proactive support by the staff of the university. YES  is relatively new and perhaps some universities fail to appreciate the benefits that students and postdocs can gain through involvement in this event. Hopefully, in time, this will change and more participation will be encouraged.
We put together our team of 5 Ph.D. students and postdocs by approaching members of the division based on their potential interest in career prospects outside academia. We were requested to allocate different roles to each team member by filling in personal assessment questionnaires to determine which jobs we were best suited to. We fed the results into a graph package and the different personalities revealed were surprisingly diverse. Only two of us showed the more 'typical' academic profile, whilst the others demonstrated strengths in other areas, such as leadership and financial awareness, which enabled the formation of a balanced management team. Based on this, team members became a research scientist, a marketing advisor, a sales advisor, a financial consultant, and the chairman of our imaginary company, and we were each given a different fictional background.
The next stage was to submit a document to the organisers stating our roles and a brief description of the invention we would be basing our company on. The brief was to produce a plausible scientific product that did not already exist and to this end we each did our own separate research into possible markets for products arising from basic research. The main objective of this scheme was to emphasize the commercial aspects, and not necessarily the validity, of the science. We had a brainstorming session and came up with a number of possible products. The one we settled on resulted from the merger of a couple of ideas. It involved the discovery of a compound that could be added to primary tissues in culture which would allow them to divide continuously. A very advantageous research product in its own right, it would be exploitable for tissue replacement therapy. In particular, we concentrated on the area of restoration of neurons in victims of brain damage.
Several weeks after we had submitted our proposals, we headed up to Edinburgh for the Northern Finals of the competition where we were competing with teams from 11 different universities. The venue was the Posthouse Forte Hotel situated near Edinburgh Zoo; meals and accommodation were provided. Each group was allocated a 'working' room where we could give birth to our company. The room housed a whiteboard, a flipchart, and working areas, and we had also brought a computer to aid us in our PowerPoint presentation at the end of the competition.
The first 2 days consisted of detailed seminars on industry, financing, and marketing. What was needed from a start-up company, such as the initial patents, was clarified in detail, including the actual costs incurred, not only from our own overheads, but costs for lawyers, agencies, etc. We also had to understand whether our fledgling company would be better off producing products "in house" or by outsourcing part or all of the production and whether we could benefit from strategic partnerships with larger companies. Finally we had to decide upon reasonable forecasts for the sales of our products.
After these intensive talks, we were given 24 hours to create a fictional company, which we named 'Geneswitch', based on our initial experimental discovery. This was a very intensive period of work during which experts in different fields visited us--such as intellectual property lawyers, biotech managers, and venture capitalists--and we were able to aim questions directly at them. We had to plan everything down to the last detail. The presentation was to be aimed at a board of capital investors (not academics) and so the emphasis had to be on the costs and profits our company could project.
Following success in the northern heat of the competition, we ventured down to London 2 months later for the national final, which was held at the Department of Trade and Industry. Our presentation had been further honed by this stage, after discussions with Manchester Biotech as well as input from various academics within our division.
We achieved second place (a team from Glasgow won) in the competition but were pleased to learn that the judges thought so highly of our presentation that they decided to award us with a prize--and the cheques arrived a month later!
This scheme has been very rewarding indeed and we would whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone who has any kind of interest in entrepreneurial science. In fact, since our participation, one of our team has submitted a patent and Gareth is about to submit another. The YES scheme is a very effective project and our entire team came away with a heightened sense of the importance of business awareness within the academic environment. Even if you have very little interest in the commercial aspects of science, this competition could very well surprise you. Go for it!
A few places are still available for this year's Biotechnology YES competition. If you would like to enter, please contact Tracey Hassall-Jones  as soon as possible. There is also a category for undergraduate teams.