Entrepreneurial academics are vital to growing the economy


This week has seen a positive commitment from Government to increase the level of funding for research and development; this came with the announcement that the Technology Strategy Board has increased its funding to support the growth and development of innovative ideas. Great news for entrepreneurial businesses that have the desire to compete on a global scale with groundbreaking technology, ones that will we typically see on the West Coast of the States, yes, Silicon Valley.

The TSB funding is great for the private sector, however can we ignore the potential impact universities, in their own right, could have on economic growth both locally and nationally? There is still a lot of work to be done in unlocking intellectual assets that lie within world class HE establishments. Vince Cable’s science, research and Innovation speech in late 2010 summed up the current position:

“The important point from a national economic perspective is that we continue to increase the level of economic interactions between business and the research base, including spin-outs, licensing, consultancy and commissioned research… This leads us on to the wider question of intellectual property and how we deal with it.  Universities make only 5% of their externally earned income from patents and licensing. There are some striking exceptions but more needs to be done”.

It’s fair to say that some universities have got financial problems, the only way forward for many of them is to think and act like a business – in other words customers should be at the heart of their strategy. Universities are the foundation of the knowledge economy and they must turn their expertise into revenue and job creation opportunities for both students and the wider population.  Universities are sat on a rich seam of expertise resource, capability and knowledge, so accelerated strategies to generate profitable revenues from this intellectual content must be found.

So what is holding HE from exploiting the vast array of opportunities presented to them?  I believe it’s the lack of customer focus, sense of urgency and appreciation of how important selling is to the commecialisation agenda. Thomas Edison said, Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success”. Can anyone disagree with one of the greatest innovators of time?

Cultures need to change and universities need to breed a new generation of academics, ones that think and behave like Thomas Edison – entrepreneurially and with sales, customers and markets at the soul of creation. In the academic world life seems to go on hold at the beginning of June when academic teaching and exams are completed. Well in the business world life goes on and deals continue to be struck. Again its an ingrained culture that is not in the least bit entrepreneurial.

It truly puzzles me why the term “selling” is ignored in any public business growth support service. Growth means selling loads of stuff we must get HE researchers to think more clearly as to how their work translates into a spin out, licence or some other form of revenue stream. A balance of academic success and commercial reality can be achieved. Please can we get more university managers to start thinking about how they encourage academics to develop “entrepreneurial selling skills”, its what makes the economy go round. A new breed of academics is what the UK economy needs, ones that fuse excellence in research with commercial application – selling skills are part of the answer.

I am delighted to have been appointed as Visiting Entrepreneur at the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Manchester, one of the world’s finest academic establishments. My plan is to embed some of the Thomas Edison thinking and work with academics to create commercial value. An exciting 12 months ahead.

Universities – sort out your shop window


Increasing pressure is being placed on universities to play a greater role in economic growth and development – quite right as well. A recent survey by the Insider magazine demonstrated that 67% of companies have no idea what HE  have to offer in terms of commercial help. However, the majority of those SMEs that had engaged HE on a business problem rated the service offer as excellent, I can vouch for this personally.

It amazes me that there is still a massive reluctance of academics to progress industry engagement strategies – my experience is that many will do everything they can to stop commercial and enterprising activities. Last week the FT reported a movement of some 60 high-profile academics actively campaigning Government to slow down the pressure on HE to become more involved in supporting business. This really is a mystery to me. Our universities are the envy of the world, however, more needs to be done to generate revenue from knowledge and the brain power that resides in every major City in the UK.

There are number of things that universities need to do:

1. Make it easier for the commercial world to connect – create a front door

2. Make faster decisions, it is sometimes painful, waiting ages for next steps

Very simply, HE needs to sort out their shop window, what is on the shelf?what is the offer? – consultancy, research, IP, graduates, facilities…the list goes on. Universities must define their propositions clearly and tell the world what they have to offer in words that industry understand. Why cant every HE faculty have a “shop” one where the expertise is clearly communicated to the outside world?

The hunt is on for high growth businesses


In the last year 480,000 new companies have been formed. There are now 4.5 million people classed as self-employed – to varying degrees these are entrepreneurs who are laying the foundations for the recovery and the creation of jobs and wealth.

All over the country, in city centres, business parks and market towns a quiet revolution is underway. A new economy is being built on the explosion of growth from fast growing businesses.

The hunt is on for the high growth businesses who have the capacity and the ability to know they are doing well – they’ve grown through the tough period we’re living in – but they want more. GrowthAccelerator is here to help them.

These businesses know they are good at what they do – this new business support service will help them do even better and get bigger, faster.

It isn’t for everyone, GrowthAccelerator’s aim is to help these businesses double within three years, by helping a business to remove the barriers to growth and throw off the shackles of caution.

By placing an expert business coach with the right skillset, the relevant sector understanding or the right keys to unlock funding, GrowthAccelerator can truly boost business performance.

GrowthAccelerator is on the hunt for small and medium sized businesses in England with real potential for growth to help them achieve their ambitions. On business parks and in city centres high growth businesses with the energy and ambition to grow need help to accelerate that growth.

These businesses can be in any sector – can be in any city, but must share the ambition to grow – the impetus for growth could be a revolutionary new scientific discovery, propelling a major new invention from one of a major university, but equally it could be a fresh new retail concept or a traditional manufacturing operation with the vision to expand into the growth markets of Brazil, Russia, India or China.

What they need is a service that identifies the barriers to growth and helps install the mechanisms to overcome them. This is GrowthAccelerator.

The hunt is on for the businesses that need this level of support. They will improve cities, they will bring more business to their supply chains. This is GrowthAccelerator.

They will create jobs and wealth – do you know one? Are you one?

Lloyds TSB Enterprise Awards


The banks have had a bit of a kicking over the past few years. However, let’s be fair and look at some of the great things they are doing. Earlier in the week I was fortunate enough to judge and speak at the Lloyds TSB Enterprise Awards – an initiative designed to seek out the best university students and graduate entrepreneurial talent. It was an inspiration to listen to young people with ideas and the motivation to build a business rather than go down the traditional route of trying to find a job.

Universities have an important role to play in preparing individuals for the next stage of their career, equipping them with the ability to write a 5,000 word dissertation is just not enough. Conditioning graduates to consider the option of setting up their own business is vital – is it any riskier than trying to find a job? probably not!

The young entrepreneurs I met, had ideas, put them on paper and then rolled them out – they were generating revenue and jobs. The winner of the Best Enterprise, Adam Soliman of Charbrew was a top lad, his head in the right place. The Best Start up – Peter Van Neste of Stagetex had a clear handle on his sector and the finances of his company.

The reality was, all of the finalists were high performers and an inspiration to other graduates, more specifically the finalists :

-had clarity of what they wanted to achieve

-were innovative and displayed an edge

-displayed the invisible forces of passion, hunger and determination

-lived in their customers world

-had a grip on the importance of finances

The finalists must be showcased – they are role models and an example of what can be achieved if you just get your head around the idea of being your own boss. Come on universities wake up – Lloyds TSB, great, you have clocked the potential of graduates and their ability to create and generate wealth!

Our Hi-Tech Future


This was the title of yesterday’s speech delivered by David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science. It was positive to hear that science and technology lies at the heart of economic growth policy, something which I passionately believe in. Even more encouraging was the recognition that science and the arts are truly complementary. My blog The Enlightened Company (20th February 2011) reflected on this very point, some of the global technology brands of today were formed by fusing the skills of arts and science graduates. It is diversity that drives innovation and hopefully this recommendation will stimulate debate between arts and science faculties, the resultant effect being new possibilities, innovations and products – maybe a Google or Twitter?

The speech also communicated the strength of the UK’s research on the global stage and the fact that we publish more articles per researcher than the US, China, Japan or Germany. Whist this maybe the case, I do seem to recall that we are not up there when it comes to commercialisation of this research. Enhanced entrepreneurial mindset and orientation lies at the core of economic growth fuelled by science and technology focus. Much to be learned from the West Coast of the States.

Science and technological excellence is fine but if the patents, know how and IP end up overseas or sitting on a shelf then it does no good for UK jobs and growth. Greater effort needs to be directed to getting HE to think more about the commercial impact of what they do. It’s not just about spinning out companies but…how do academic staff  gain a better balance of research and selling their knowledge as consultants, attaining greater utilisation of assets that sit idle…… encouraging entrepreneurial thinking of post grads – creating more ideas and mind to market.

The reality is many university professors and academics frown upon enterprising forays and suffocate new possibilities even before they see the light of day.

A greater entrepreneurial culture will be vital to the successful execution of David Willetts’ strategy.

Foreign Gorillas are eating UK Gazelles


The minute a gazelle starts to emerge from the UK, suddenly from nowhere it just seems to get eaten by a foreign gorilla. (42% of high growth companies in the Cambridge cluster were acquired between 1998 and 2008, half the acquirers were foreign) The recent acquisition of Autonomy by Hewlett-Packard of the US is a great example of an home-grown global star of the future getting swallowed up. Not only in IT but we also see this in other technology sectors e.g. bio sciences. When these rising stars put their head above the parapet they are swallowed up by overseas predators. This is great news for the investing VCs and founding teams and stakeholders as it gives them the opportunity to cash in their chips. However from a broader economic perspective do we lose opportunities from the IP ending up somewhere overseas? (as well as the jobs)

Is this stopping the UK from creating the next Twitter or Google? Lots of suggestions over the past few weeks suggesting UK plc needs to take a closer look at this issue.


Universities have much more to give


As a Nation we should be extremely proud of the contribution our Universities have made to the progression of science and knowledge and our educational prowess is both respected and recognised throughout the world. Whist this maybe the case, there is no avoiding the need to cut costs, a fate that other public and private sector organisations have failed to escape. Plugging the budget shortfall and creating financial game plans to secure long-term sustainable futures have become of paramount importance to senior university managers

The one advantage which universities have that others don’t is the rich seam of potentially commercial propositions these span the spectrum of patents and licensing, through to revenue streams created through consultancy, R & D collaboration and spinouts. However commecialisation still remains a relatively low priority for university faculties. At the extreme some senior academics frown upon entrepreneurial forays with many sensible suggestions dismissed at infancy. A mindset change is needed and when costs are being cut plausible options of how to secure revenue from the commercial realisation should be investigated. For many academics seeing the application of their research in practice is a significant motivator, more needs to be done.

The Government has made it clear that transforming research into innovation is a priority and whilst UK universities have a strong record more needs to be done. This involves building stronger links between the UK’s science and research base and the business community, to create more spin-out companies, consultancy projects and research-funded programme

For this to happen a fundamental change is needed in promoting an entrepreneurial culture. In all fairness academics are not trained or prepared for the life of commerce. Very few have the unique mix of business and technical skills. Setting up a venture or selling knowledge and expertise is far more than creating a business plan – it requires attention to a broader set of softer skill which cant be taught, however they can be coached. Is it time for change?

The Enlightened Company


What is it about some companies that make them shine way above the rest? They have differentiated propositions, take a massive lead on competition, build a strong brand and just outperform others.

More specifically, I am really interested in some of those massive companies that have entered onto the world stage and become literally global phenomena in less than a decade. Great examples such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Google come to mind. These outstanding founders often become labeled unfairly as techie geeks. However when you probe further into their academic background some are obviously technical many have an arts degree. Reid Hoffman founder of LinkedIn – BA in Symbolic Systems and MA in Philosophy, his co-founder Peter Thiel also of PayPal fame BA in Philosophy, Chris Hughes co Founder of Facebook BA in History and Literature, and Eduaro Saverin also co-founder of Facebook BA in Economics.

For me it raises a number of questions that I would love to delve into further – would knowledge and technology based businesses benefit from a founding team that combines scientific/technical and creative talent. Does this create an enlightened company? – One that sees opportunities from different angles embraces ambiguity and curiosity and also one that is willing to explore various options and keep an open mind as to what is and what is not possible.

We are continuously being reminded that the UK needs to commercialise its R & D and knowledge assets and we massively lag behind the US in this arena. Equally we are told that academics and technologists need to become more entrepreneurial if we are to reverse the fortunes of turning IP into revenue. So what is the missing link?

In 1981 Roger W. Sperry won The Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine – he discovered that the left side of the brain was associated with analytical thinking the right with more creative thought.  Is it fair to say that when the mindset of a founding team combines both; greater is the likelihood of success? So what are the implications on all those massively talented scientific individuals who are exploring a business idea – given they are probably dominated by left-brain thinking, would an injection of right brain support help to accelerate the idea to market process?

Just how important is the role of combining technical/scientific functional mastery with creative thinking. Would university incubators and others involved in stimulating high growth businesses and spin outs benefit from bringing individuals from humanities and arts faculties into the mix.  After all diversity and interconnected thinking drives innovation.

It’s about time Manchester and indeed the rest of the UK started to create some of the Gorilla companies such as Facebook – after all we have the talent. Maybe we just need to get the so-called geeks talking to the creative’s – and throw an accountant in there as well!


Universities can do more!


The amount of Government funding that has gone into funding research and development over the last number of years needs to pay for itself in the future – looking at the vast resource of talent and expertise that sits in our HE establishments leads me to believe that there must be potential to create new ventures that deliver new jobs and economic growth. Patents, brainpower and knowledge can be turned into revenue – we just need more “academic entrepreneurs” – those individuals that remain passionate about their subject area but see the commercial potential of their work. Such individuals could be vital contributors to the economy going forward – Manchester University has a number of them – we just need more!

Mind to Market


For the last few years I have been trying to create a simple model that allows individuals to assess the commercial viability of business opportunities and innovative ideas – irrespective of where this idea is created (university lab, industrial R&D department, current employer or our bedroom) I think there are three primary drivers that need to be assessed and considered when evaulating new ideas. Here are my thoughts:

Commercial drivers  (CD)- who is going to buy the idea/service/product and how do you get it to market?

Human factors (HF) – who is going to make it their job to get it out there – and is there a team that can make it happen?

Resource Issues (RI) – have we got the finance, IT, plant and equipment along within physical resources needed to make it happen?

I score each idea on a 1-10 scale in each area. (I have some more detailed sub questions to each area and I have over simplified the above). I work on the basis of successful mind to market – creating a sustainable revenue stream is down to CD x HF x RI – top score is 1,000 (10 x 10 x 10). In a very crude way it gives me a feel for whether I want to pursue an idea or not. If any score is zero then its back to the drawing board.

So much emphasis is on CD……but as I said earlier this week – HF needs to be given the attention it deserves !!!!