My life seems hectic enough with my full-time research, voluntary commitments, blogging and science writing... So is it really a good idea for me to enter the prestigious BiotechYES Challenge as part of a team from the University of Sheffield? But I just cannot resist such a good opportunity! The challenge of this competition is to come up with an idea for a novel biotechnologically based product or service and draw up a business plan to pitch to a panel of industry experts. In the process, teams develop their financial awareness, meet major biotech industry players and receive expert training from business mentors. Having out my name down, it was now up to me to represent my team at the Briefing Session held at the University of Nottingham.
I had hoped that this competition would be a bit of 'fun' with plenty of networking and career-enhancing workshops thrown in. But on entering the lecture theatre at Nottingham University's Business School, I suddenly realised just how serious this was going it be! The room was packed to the very back row with delegates from over a hundred teams, from across the whole UK. I was lucky to only have had to travel from Sheffield! There was a steely edge amongst the chatter and it was clear that these people hadn't come here for a holiday. Fortunately I spotted Emily Seward, who is also in the Gatsby Plants Network, so had a friend to sit next to. It's funny how these plant scientists crop up everywhere!
Simon Mosey, a Professor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Nottingham University, welcomed us by explaining that this year was a very special one for BioTechYES. This would be the 20 th year of the competition, which has grown so rapidly from its origins that soon over 5,000 students will have progressed through it. As he described the prestigious 'BiotechYES Alumni Network' I began to feel woefully inadequate of reaching the high standards of the competition. But Simon was keen to dispel some common myths about successful business people. "Entrepreneurs are not special people who can see the future or who have different chromosomes to the rest of us" he said. "Rather, they just have the courage to try the things you may think of but be too scared to do". Instead of simply waking up one day with a brilliant idea, entrepreneurs typically have to experiment with hundreds of different ideas and get used to most of them failing. Furthermore, "entrepreneurs don't do it all themselves". Although one person may be the figurehead of a product or business ( such as Steve Jobs was with Apple ), behind them will be a highly talented and motivated team. Hence, the ability to work with very different people is critical. According to a recent survey of company CEOs, the key piece of advice that they would give those hoping to launch their own start up is to use every opportunity to build your network.
The stage was then handed to Dr Simon Cutler, a Senior Innovation and Skills Programme Manager at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). He explained the value of taking time away from our normal research to enter the competition. Besides the obvious transferable skills we would develop - such as teamwork and communication - we would also acquire some less obvious ones, including the ability to handle conflict and work through sleep deprivation! (WHAT have I let myself I for?!) We would also have the chance to work with major bioscience businesses and forge valuable contacts for the future. "Hopefully we will all be winners" he said. "You will develop an enterprise mindset and have the opportunity to think about what you want to do for the rest of your life".
Dr Nessa Carey, from PraxisUnico rose to introduce us to the role of Technology Transfer Officers and how they help researchers to increase the impact of their work. She began by encouraging us to 'play with' our career choices until we find the role we feel especially called to. "Your career is the one area that you can experiment with and you will always gain" she said. Her own story is a singular example of this. Having originally applied to study veterinary medicine she quickly realised that "I was hopeless at it - I can't think in 3D and I'm allergic to hay, fur and feathers". After a stint as a forensic scientist for the Metropolitan Police, she decided to do a scientific degree then found herself back at the veterinary faculty to do a PhD! Eventually she came to work for the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, having been drawn to a role where she could make a difference beyond the laboratory. "I now work at the interface between the Academic and Industrial worlds, working out how to make research have an impact" she said.
And yet Nessa insists that she has never had any formal training for what she does now. "I've never been a Technology Transfer Officer but I've done all the bits needed to become one" she said. "The great news is that you can pick up all the skills for a job without doing the job itself - all while being a really average scientist!" This was wonderful for me to hear since I have long realised that I am not a member of the tier of 'brilliant scientists' on course to become the Professors of the future. Indeed, Nessa assured us that "there are very few great scientists - although there are lots who think they are" , yet it was still possible for us to dream of a career with variety, travel and impactful work. Including that of being a technology transfer officer ( TTO). Nessa explained that, rather than being the "battle axes or walls" that block exciting research from getting out into the world, TTOs are more like navigation aids to help academics through the maze of patents, legal requirements, etc surrounding their work. For science to be delivered properly to society, it needs to have someone with a firm grounding in the 'real world'. She told a humorous story about an Academic who rang her on a Thursday with a 'brilliant idea'. When she asked when he was thinking of disclosing it, he answered "Oh, on Monday". Cue a mad dash to Cambridge to find an attorney at the last minute so the patent could be filed before the office closed at 5 pm on Friday! Academics may be brilliant at what they do, but they haven't always got their finger on the pulse of the practicalities of industrialising research...
We were then introduced to the 2014 winners of BiotechYES. They had certainly had a glamorous time since last year's competition - £2,500 prize money, a whirlwind of gala dinners and a trip to Houston, USA to take part in the RISE Business Plan competition. But they had also clearly out in a lot of time and effort into their Biotech entry. Their science was convincing, their PowerPoint slides highly professional and even for this relatively informal occasion, their delivery was slick and polished. They had even thought to bring wine as a 'thank you' to the Biotech organisers! We were all keen to hear their advice to us, the next batch of entrants. Firstly - be comfortable with generating bad ideas. It had taken a giant pool of brainstorming to find their winning idea! Secondly - do as much advance preparation as possible as time at the workshops is extremely limited and highly pressured. Third - the science behind the product is not as important as the market potential - you need a convincing story to draw your investors in. In their case, their winning product was a naturally decaffinated coffee bean. So they began their pitch by inviting the judging panel to sample some of their delicious new blend before launching into their spiel: "It looks like coffee....it smells like coffee...and as you can see, it tastes like coffee....but there's one thing missing!" Hence, the art of 'storytelling' can be added to that list of transferable skills!
By this time we were ready for lunch. I had been so inspired by Nessa's talk that I acted on the advice to network, network, network and caught up with her for a chat and to exchange business cards. Meanwhile, the delegates took advantage of the sunshine to relax outside, reviving themselves on the fountain of cupcakes...
In the afternoon session, Dr David Park from Newzpark Ltd gave us his perspective as someone who had 'been there and done it' when it came to starting his own business. "If I had my time again, I would tell myself to focus more and not try to take over the world!" He said. Indeed his first business, in the area of "Integrated Data Systems and Processing" had a rather haphazard start, involving writing a hurried business plan on a train to an interview and asking his wife at the last minute "How would you like to live in New Zealand?" Subsequently, he set up the Geospatial Research Station, a consultancy company based in Christchurch. Life could certainly be hectic at times, dodging volcanoes and emperor penguins besides overcoming the usual financial hurdles of establishing a business. "It will be stressful at times and you will be sick to the stomach" he said "but starting a business should be fun and you have to take a moment to enjoy the good times". Although the GRS didn't survive the recession, David was adamant "I'd absolutely do it again". He encouraged all of us to have the courage to follow our entrepreneurial dreams : "Don't be afraid to give it a go - you won't be left with a pile of broken experiences" he said.
He also had some useful advice for the BiotechYES competition. When pitching for cash, it is vital to understand the drivers and priorities of your shareholders. Again, he emphasised the importance of crafting a compelling story to attract investment. "Become the best storyteller ever" he said. "When pitching, practice and refine the start and the end the most - if they are perfect, the rest will fit." Meanwhile, don't underestimate how long things take and how much they cost: "Multiple all estimates of time and cost by pi" he advised. And finally, "Take some time to step back from the technical work and give yourself space to ask 'Why am I doing this?'" David advised. It can be all too easy to lose a sense of perspective when you have a business to run!
Now it was time for us to do some work during the 'Ideas Generation Challenge'. We were introduced to IngenuityOnline, an online portal where different users can sign up to 'challenges' to suggest solutions to a particular problem. First, we had to vote on a topical issue to work on that afternoon, with ageing and increasing longevity coming out on top. Then we had to define the problem, breaking it down into things we associated with it. The ideas here covered the scope from 'going wrinkly' to 'reduced mobility' and 'the cost of care'. As everyone's ideas were pooled together, a complex picture began to form of the social, economic and physical aspects of the 'ageing problem'. Now we had to throw up solutions and were encouraged to be as whacky and adventurous as we liked, although perhaps some people took this a bit too far, using the opportunity to express their dislike of certain political parties ... The online tools allowed us to play about with the ideas suggested by others, merging things together and calling up visual representations. So, for example, could we somehow think of a solution that involved both 'brain training games' and 'fortified green tea extract'?
It was a fascinating experience of brainstorming in real time but also incredibly complicated to master - in future, I may stick to pen and paper! But it was time to head to the shuttle coaches back to Nottingham Station. Armed with hundreds of new ideas, a Biotech goody bag and a new sense of resolve, I had a team meeting to organise back at Sheffield! The challenge has been set - now we have to get ready for it!
Special thanks for the BiotechYES organisers, especially Tracey-Hassal Jones for organising the event.