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The toolbox of the research entrepreneur

by Joana Osório | Research Feature

28 October 2019

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Iain Foulkes introducing the 2019 Innovation Summit

Researchers and supporters of innovation in academia discuss the challenges and opportunities for budding entrepreneurs in cancer research – including our Entrepreneurial Programmes initiative.

Joely Irlam and Darren Roberts wanted to use their lab discoveries to develop new commercial tools that benefit patients with cancer. When they joined a business accelerator programme to learn the necessary business skills, they had a language shock. To an academic scientist, what does ‘customer discovery’ mean? “One of the sessions was about what a milkshake is ‘hired’ to do, what its ‘job’ is,” tells Darren. “Why do people buy milkshakes and how can we get them to buy more?” Joely laughs. “We really got out of our comfort zone.”

In the past few decades, medical research has brought about enormous breakthroughs in the understanding, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of human diseases. Nevertheless, the translation of new research findings into clinical practice has not progressed at the same pace as discovery research.

Innovation-focused academic and clinical researchers can help bridge this gap by partnering up with commercial companies or launching their own spin-outs to develop their ideas. Regardless of the chosen route, the path to success relies on a clear articulation of the problem that needs solving and the unique solution the researchers can provide.

Joely and Darren work in Catharine West’s research group at the University of Manchester. The three researchers co-founded ManTRa Diagnostics to develop tools that use gene signatures for hypoxia to stratify patients with cancer. Joely and Darren attended the Cancer Research UK (CRUK) Innovation Summit in Manchester on 7 October, and Darren was one of the speakers. The event, aimed at early-career researchers interested in innovation and commercialisation of their discoveries, brought together more than 100 academic scientists, clinicians, entrepreneurs and industry representatives.

“The Innovation Summit is the flagship event of our Entrepreneurial Programmes Initiative,” says Tony Hickson, our Chief Business Officer. “We want to make sure researchers, particularly at an early career stage, get a sense of the menu of opportunities we’re providing, meet with potential partners, and also meet with innovative academics who’ve been there and done it before, and who can talk about both the good experiences and the hardships they had to endure.”

Some of these hardships are related to the academic environment and its culture, the time needed to engage in entrepreneurship, shifting from an academic to an entrepreneurial mindset and learning the skills required to move discoveries forward. Researchers who want to pursue commercialisation while remaining in academia may sometimes have conflicting priorities.

For example, the success of academic careers in the life sciences depends heavily on the publication of scientific papers in so-called ‘high-impact’ journals. Projects that lead to commercialisation can take a long time to complete and might not generate many publications, or publications suitable for these journals. Moreover, the very act of sharing discoveries via publications or conferences can jeopardise a researcher’s ability to patent their ideas.

Caroline Springer, Director of the Drug Discovery Unit at the CRUK Manchester Institute and a speaker at the summit, advises researchers working on innovation to protect their ideas before presenting them at lectures and conferences, or publishing papers on them. Not all information needs to be treated confidentially, so it is important to understand what can be shared before the patent is filed. Caroline also calls for a change in the way life scientists’ careers are evaluated. “In medicinal chemistry, for example, it is understood that a patent is equivalent to a publication.”

Lack of time allocated to consortium work within her job plan has been a challenge for Fiona Thistlethwaite, who is both a medical oncology consultant and a researcher within the Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre at The Christie in Manchester. At the summit, Fiona recounted the origins and progress of the Innovate Manchester Advanced Therapy Centre Hub (iMATCH), a £9 million 3-year project funded by Innovate UK that is testing cell therapies in clinical trials. The iMATCH initiative, which is a complex collaboration between 12 academic, clinical and commercial partners, added to Fiona’s already demanding clinic and academic duties. “Initially, we didn’t assign anywhere near enough funding for a senior programme manager and admin support for the programme,” comments Fiona.

Fiona’s story mirrors the experience of most academics and clinicians who embark on collaborations with industry or develop spin-out companies. These researchers-cum-entrepreneurs usually retain all their academic or clinical commitments and allocate a small amount of extra time to such entrepreneurial activities. Researchers who leave academia to focus on their spin-outs, like Darren, have more time for innovation work – but they need to embrace the inherent risks.

“Our surveys have identified two other aspects of entrepreneurship that academics need help with,” says Tony. “One is entrepreneurial skills, and the other one is the environment to practice – to try and fail, if necessary.” Business accelerators, like the one Darren and Joely joined at Alderley Park in Manchester, are programmes that provide entrepreneurial education and access to mentors and investors. In September, we announced partnerships with Deep Science Ventures (DSV) and Panacea Stars, two business accelerators that now offer CRUK-tailored 12-month programmes focused on the oncology sector.

There are many types of accelerators available to entrepreneurs in the making. Idea-led accelerators, such as the one offered by Panacea Stars, are suitable to people like Joely and Darren, who already have an idea they want to develop. Solution-led accelerators, like the one offered by DSV, are a good fit for people who want to find a unique solution to a problem, and create a company to explore that solution. The right accelerator, chosen at the right time, can be an invaluable source of support. Beyond learning the language of business – including the milkshake metaphor – “our programme unlocked a whole expert network that we could contact under the umbrella of the accelerator,” explains Joely. “It would be very difficult to find one or two mentors that would cover the breadth of a network like that,” Darren concurs.

Networking and mentorship were major themes throughout the summit. Often, especially at early stages, business experts and industry contacts are happy to give their advice for free. And talking to these people early on can move a project in an entirely new direction. “Talking to Jane Theaker, one of our business advisors, opened a whole new avenue of customers that we needed to discover,” says Joely. In addition to joining an accelerator, entrepreneurs can build their network by attending events, such as our Innovation Summits, where they can meet other entrepreneurs, business experts and investors.

When the time comes to pitch to investors, academic entrepreneurs must resist their natural inclination to go heavy on the science – and mention only the most compelling, ‘killer’ scientific finding that underpins their idea. Investors are usually more interested in the market angle and in the uniqueness of the solution. They want to see comparisons with competitor products, a business plan and – often neglected but crucial to them – an exit strategy.

“Personality counts”, says Eilish Middlehurst, who attended the DSV accelerator and co-founded ConcR, a company that is developing decision-support tools for cancer researchers and clinicians. “Investors need to feel they can trust you and what you’re saying, and that you don’t say anything that you can’t back up.” Unfortunately, the lack of diversity of the venture capital world can create extra hurdles for some entrepreneurs. Investors tend to ‘pattern-match’ and invest in people and projects akin to those they have previously funded. This kind of unconscious bias can make it harder for less stereotypical funders to attract investment. But, as Eilish’s experience demonstrates, success is possible.

Eilish says the value of business and leadership skills should be emphasised to science university students. “Entrepreneurship is not really part of their horizon, in the same way that it is for, say, business students. More awareness would help people to build their work experience properly.”

But the support for academic entrepreneurship is growing. Alison Howe, sponsor of the Innovation Summit, says there’s a better safety net nowadays than when she left a steady job in pharma to set up a medical education company more than two decades ago. “I really did walk off into the unknown and could have fallen down the cliff face.” And excellent innovation ecosystems can be found across the UK. “I was really impressed with what we’ve heard about Manchester,” says Alison. “There are accelerators, the business park, other people to draw on, the Christie, the university.”

Our Entrepreneurial Programmes Initiative is a good example of the increased help available to cancer researchers at any stage of their careers. Technology Transfer Officers and Innovation Officers are also on call at many institutions to aid researchers to develop their innovations. “Entrepreneurship is not our day job,” says Caroline. “The Innovations Officer we’re advertising for will seek out and deliver on the interesting work that goes on.” And, with Fiona’s contribution, the University of Manchester is now offering an MSc in advanced therapies. The first of its kind in the UK, this MSc includes modules on drug manufacture and regulatory issues.

When is it a good time to be an entrepreneur? Caroline is concerned that Brexit may reduce the talent pool and grant money that come into UK research, and many attendees at the summit share her concerns. But, Alison says, “if you stand on one foot and then the other, and think ‘is this a good time’, you probably shouldn’t be an entrepreneur”.

Resilience is part of the game. “I’ve spoken to other start-up founders who have gone through periods of having money and not having money,” says Eilish. “Think like a scientist,” says Darren. “It’s an experiment: go out there, test your hypothesis, get the validation, get the evidence. Then, people will believe you and it’ll build from there.”

Get involved

Our programme is primarily for PhD students, postdocs and junior group leaders, but we encourage everyone, regardless of your career stage, to get involved. We will provide you with the skills, infrastructure and support you need to develop your idea.