Big business comes with big responsibilities - Taking the leap by the Danish way
To deepen our understanding of innovation and how to commercialize our research ideas, we – three postdocs from Norwegian universities – attended a summer school on bio-innovation and commercialization at the BioInnovation Institute in Copenhagen (organized in collaboration with CBS Executive, CBS – Copenhagen Business School). The course and travel were funded by Digital Life Norway.
People from across the globe joined BII Summer School, © BII Summer School
Have a great business idea? Mind the gap!
The course aimed to bridge the gap between academic research and business life by introducing the framework necessary to bring therapeutics, health technology, and bio-industrials to the market. The initial culture shock was eased by many successful startup stories but was even more interesting to hear about the cautionary failure stories (although fewer are willing to talk about the failures). As we have learned, having a great idea is not enough. Your product will likely fail to reach the market if the team working on the idea is not quite right or good at communicating with each other, or, if the investors and other shareholders of a startup cannot quite agree on the vision or direction of the company. A clear and shared vision is therefore essential. In other words, building a startup is not for the lone wolfs, you need to build your pack! But what makes a good team? Well, every startup is different, but the bottom line is that people need to have varying competencies to complement each other, but at the same time be able to work together with a shared vision and understanding. Definitely easier said than done! Interestingly, a tool often used to make people work together better, is personality tests. Not only to select the team, but also when you already have a team, a personality test can be used as a discussion starting point to increase understanding of both one’s own preferences and that other peoples’ preferences, work styles, backgrounds, and expertise can be very different but not less right or less valuable. Understanding how other people are different and how they are indispensable to the shared project is likely to increase mutual respect and appreciation of one another and at the same time lubricate the business machinery.
Venturing alone is not the way!
Another point essential to starting a business, but completely lacking in Norwegian Ph.D. education, is the understanding of investors, venture capitalists (VCs), and other mysterious creatures as angel investors. Developing a product will cost money, but where does it come from? Research funding is of course still an option at the beginning, but to really get a new product to the market, it is almost unavoidable to raise more capital from investors. There is a huge difference between the two which can come as a culture shock to a scientist. The investors give money to your project now to get a return on their investment later, maybe in five to ten years. Altogether, understanding what an investor wants and how this is different from academic funding could make an enormous difference. These angels and venture capitalists sometimes answer your prayers and help you along the way in business. As their goal is for you to succeed. But there are of course catches. Before taking money from a VC, it is best to understand their timeline of investment, and trying to keep a common vision for the company can be important for its success. An important stage of the business development process is when both inventors and investors get returns for their investments, which is often called the initial public offering, IPO. This refers to the process of offering the shares of the – until now – private company to the public stock market. There is a long way to go until this point, though. As an entrepreneur, you have to be innovative and in addition have an eye for opportunities of making a profit. Being innovative in a business setting goes beyond that directly linked to the new product idea. For example, how you wrap it, distribute, or market the new product can have a huge impact on future market success and could be crucial to reaching the IPO stage.
Appreciate the IP and regulatory
It has been repeated many times, but academics are so focused on publishing that we tend to forget about the legal necessities. After all, life is so easy without that isn’t it? Yet, in order to succeed with your innovation, it will in many cases be essential to have your invention protected through a patent. It is very important to understand that if you publish or otherwise disclose your invention, let it be in a journal article or scientific talk, before filing a patent – it will be hard or even impossible to protect the invention through a patent. As an entrepreneur, you’ll have to familiarise yourself with the new (sometimes challenging, sometimes exciting) world of intellectual property rights and protection. Another regulatory framework important to be aware of is that in relation to your employer (e.g., the university) who might own at least parts of your IP if the work were conducted there. If the invention is in therapeutics or health technology, there will be another long list of checkpoints before your invention may enter the market. One can never foresee all obstacles in the way, but practice makes perfect.
Gambling is not for the faint-hearted
In the end, most innovative ideas are deemed to fail, so it is critical to choose wisely where you invest your time and money. Your current idea is likely not as unique or as attractive to customers as you might think, so seeking as much information about the market and potential competitors as possible before making large steps, might in the end turn out to be one of your best investments. On the other hand, the winner can take it all, among the many failed startup trials there are also a few success stories of the ones who made it. It is great to see examples from basic science translate into off-the-shelf, available solutions for actual problems. At the end of the day, that is what many scientists dream about. Although, getting from dreaming to realization can lead to an unpleasant abrupt wake-up for many scientists. However, knowledge of the business world can give you some pillows to fall onto. So better get prepared!
Ida S. Opstad (UiT)
Bàlint Csoboz (UiT)
Arsenii Zabirnyk (UiO)