Innovation: Brushing up on business

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Entrepreneurship training can open up new avenues for scientists. And it doesn't take a business degree.

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After 15 years as a practising cardiologist, Catherine McGorrian enrolled in a PhD programme at University College Dublin (UCD), studying family risk factors for sudden cardiac death. To fulfil her credit requirements, she chose to undertake an optional course in entrepreneurship for scientists. “It just struck me as something really different,” she says, “something that wasn't a skill you would pick up just anywhere.”


Her class attended a presentation from the Irish Marine Institute, based in Oranmore, about SmartBay — a network of sensors and communications technology attached to buoys and undersea cables that gathers oceanographic data and transmits them to researchers. McGorrian wondered whether similar technology could be applied to one of her own interests: the portable defibrillators that are used widely to deliver regulating electric shocks to people having heart attacks.

In an emergency, McGorrian wondered, how would someone know where to find a defibrillator, or whether it was charged and in working order? “I just thought, 'There are these buoys in the ocean talking to each other and here I am on land, and I can't tell if there's a defibrillator in the next room.'”

So, taking what she had learned in the course and drawing on the resources of the Innovation Academy, a joint programme of the UCD and Trinity College Dublin, McGorrian put together a business plan for defibrillators that would transmit information on their location, their maintenance schedule and whether their batteries were charged. She entered it into a competition held by Enterprise Ireland, a government organization that promotes business growth. She didn't win, but is still talking to business people about implementing her idea. The experience has convinced her that she will have other marketable ideas in future.

In addition to McGorrian's course, the Innovation Academy has launched a graduate certificate in innovation and entrepreneurship, which takes the equivalent of seven weeks of study. It is one of a growing number of academic programmes aimed at teaching scientists and engineers how the fruits of their research can become commercial products or seed companies. The development of such programmes has been promoted by governments, which see the creation of businesses — especially technology-focused ones — as an economic driver.

Breadth not depth

Scientists who want to learn about entrepreneurship can spend one or two years of full-time education earning a master's degree in business administration (MBA). But many institutions offer more focused options, with programmes that teach enough finance, marketing and management for scientists and engineers to learn how to apply their strengths to the commercial world. “We're not going to make them into financiers. We're not going to make them into marketers,” says Jeanne Simmons, associate dean of the Graduate School of Management at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “We're not trying to give them this full-blown MBA. We want to give them the knowledge to ask the right questions.” Such focused options range from a course or two during or after a normal degree programme to a certificate in entrepreneurship (see 'Training top-up').

Business courses are often geared towards bioengineers, biomedical researchers and computer scientists. But good ideas can come from anywhere, and entrepreneurship classes can be useful for people from any discipline. More important than background, say educators, is a willingness to take risks, to think in new ways and to put up with the lack of security and support that comes from being self-employed. Entrepreneurship is hard for most faculty members, says Alistair Fee, who teaches business in the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Queen's University Belfast in Northern Ireland. “It is different from research and publishing. It moves at a fast pace,” he says.

Jeanne Simmons: “We want to give them the knowledge to ask the right questions.”

A business degree costs a lot of time and money. An MBA in the United States, for example, can require 45–50 course credits — four semesters of work or more. Marquette offers a more accessible option: a Certificate in Entrepreneurship that takes only 16 credits. The first set of students graduated in May. Simmons says that the course provides a grounding in the basic principles of entrepreneurship, helping scientists to decide, for instance, whether a product actually fills a need in the marketplace or can be sold at a reasonable price. It also helps researchers to hire the right business people, should they build a company that grows.

Courses and certificates of this type often offer more breadth of knowledge than depth, focusing on skills such as forming market strategies, finding venture money, creating teams and managing cash flow. “I'm not an expert in any of these things,” says John Melas-Kyriazi, a graduate student in materials science and engineering at Stanford University in California and an alumnus of the Mayfield Fellows Program, a nine-month work–study course run by the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. “I know a little bit about a lot of things,” he adds. Melas-Kyriazi, who wants to develop better storage systems for wind and solar power, appreciates what the programme taught him about founding and running a business. “If you're looking to change the world and make a positive impact,” he says, “one of the ways of doing it is commercializing your technology.”

Entrepreneurial education need not lead to a start-up, says Tim Keane, entrepreneur in residence at Marquette, who helped to develop the university's entrepreneurship programme. Business skills and knowledge make scientists more attractive to venture-capital firms looking for advice about promising technologies. “Helping people understand what the game is, even if all they do is go work for an entrepreneurial company, I think that is a big deal,” says Keane, who has founded and sold a web-analytics company, Retail Target Marketing Systems, and launched a venture-capital fund called the Golden Angels Network.

“It's also about being more entrepreneurial no matter what they do,” says Karen Wilson, an adviser and board member of the European Foundation for Entrepreneurship Research, which is headquartered in Hilversum, the Netherlands, She adds that business courses can promote willingness to take risks, think creatively and lead rather than follow. “It's not only for the Bill Gateses and Richard Bransons of the world.”

Change your thinking

At their core, these courses teach science-related problem solving, says Matt Harvey, content and communications editor for Stanford's entrepreneurship courses, which cover how to choose an idea and license intellectual property from a university. Harvey says that Stanford doesn't measure success in terms of how many start-ups its graduates found, but how well they learn to identify, fill and profit from an unmet need in the marketplace. He mentions Stanford graduates Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, both of whom were Mayfield fellows. They founded the online photo-sharing service Instagram, which they sold to Facebook this year for US$1 billion. But Harvey insists that the value of their education doesn't lie in that one sale, however lucrative: “The story is not about Kevin and Mike founding Instagram. The story is what are they going to do for the next 10, 20, 30 years, because they're problem solvers,” he says.

In his own course, Fee uses a poetry contest to help engineers think in ways they're not used to. “I've had young men in tears in my office saying 'I can't write poetry,'” he says. “The point is to get the students to explore their emotional soul, if you like.” He feels that poetry heightens awareness of language, helping people to learn when to be precise and when to be imaginative. Fee also emphasizes the importance of drawing connections between disparate subjects. He argues, for example, that connecting ideas from origami and cardiology led to the creation of stents that can be folded to fit into an artery.

Learning creative problem-solving often requires hands-on classes, not passive lectures. Accordingly, entrepreneurship courses seldom run on the model of the large lecture courses that are common in undergraduate science. Students “don't sit in a classroom listening to us tell them what we think. They're out experiencing things,” says Suzi Jarvis, a UCD biophysicist and co-director of the Innovation Academy.

Keane divides students into teams with different disciplinary backgrounds, and describes real-life financial and personnel issues that have faced the founders of Zipcar, a car-sharing service based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The students have to come up with ideas about how to address those issues — first individually, then as a team. It is often hardest for them to grasp that there is no one correct solution, says Keane.

To learn how creativity translates into business success, students often hear talks from accomplished entrepreneurs. Not only do such talks provide important networking opportunities, but they can also give students a different perspective on entrepreneurship. “If people in engineering and science don't have any exposure to entrepreneurs, they may think 'That's only for business people. That's only for people with MBAs. That's only for people who aren't like me,'” says Wilson.

Ideal approach

For scientists interested in entrepreneurship, Wilson recommends dipping a toe in with a single course, or searching the web for one of the many conferences held on the subject every year. The website TechCrunch, for instance, runs the biannual Disrupt conference, at which start-ups can demonstrate their technology and compete for a monetary prize. The Kauffman Foundation, based in Kansas City, Missouri, joined with Enterprise UK in London to create Global Entrepreneurship Week, which covers a variety of events around the world. O'Reilly Media in Sebastopol, California, a publisher of computer-related books, holds regular Ignite events, at which people give 5-minute talks about their passions, which could include start-up ideas.

Wilson strongly suggests getting some work experience before trying to start a company. Although famous successes such as Facebook give the impression that graduates can immediately build a billion-dollar company, most successful entrepreneurs actually have a decade or more of business experience. Wilson herself studied applied mathematics as an undergraduate, and after working for a couple of years, went to Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts. Her only regret is that she didn't work for longer, perhaps gaining experience at a second company. “Go and make all your mistakes at somebody else's expense,” agrees Fee. “Learn how difficult it is to get projects off the ground.”

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Savage, N. Innovation: Brushing up on business. Nature 490, 435–437 (2012) doi:10.1038/nj7420-435a

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