Taking the technologists to the marketplace

 

IS THE SCIENCE or engineering student wired differently to the business student? Tarring folk with the same brush is never smart, but there are some general differences between the person who voluntarily chooses the path of science over business.

The emphasis now placed on the commercialisation of scientific research means that science graduates at all levels need to know how to get their inventions to market, and modules in entrepreneurship are now a staple in schools of science, engineering and technology around the country.

“Entrepreneurship can be taught,” says Martin Lyes, manager of Enterprise Ireland’s (EI) research and Innovation business unit.

“It’s systematic and there is a very specific skill-set needed. How you train a technologist, however, requires a different approach to the traditional business graduate. Aside from giving information on areas such as good laboratory practice, how patenting works, licensing conditions and intellectual property, one must also take into account how technical people think: they’re often devoted to the technology.

“What the technologist must realise is their technology is secondary: the value to the customer is key. The technologist must ask questions like: is my invention part of a large growing market? Do I have a good team to make this happen? Do I have a revenue model? In some cases the last aspect to consider might be the technology itself.”

Successful commercialisation means sometimes you just have to let go, something which might be difficult for a young innovator. “The first hurdle to overcome is their innate mindset, which is technology-centric and focused on what is possible,” says Dr Brian O’Flaherty of UCC.

“This could mean technology advancements that are faster, smaller, more complex. Successful commercial exploitation of technology is customer-centric and must focus on what is needed. The emphasis is more on market analysis, customer value, resource acquisition, pricing and, in many cases, simplified functionality.

“The university technologist must also appreciate that once a potential investor understands the technical offering, it becomes secondary and the primary concern shifts to the large growing market size, capabilities of the team and viability of business models.”

The skills gained from an entrepreneurial education are broad. Yet the term is all too quickly associated with business and finance so many of the wider benefits that training in the area might bestow upon any student in any field are not considered.

“Entrepreneurship as a phrase poses difficulties, and a common misconception is that all students will go on to form their own companies,” says O’Flaherty. “This is not the case, and cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset is a powerful asset irrespective of whether the graduate develops their own business, joins a multinational, or works for an indigenous company.”

An example of how this is being done is at the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT), which has embedded entrepreneurship within the pedagogy of their courses. “The ethos at IADT is very much about the convergence of art, technology and entrepreneurship,” says IADT president Dr Annie Doona. “Whether they’re studying, art, business, film, animation or digital media, our students need to have entrepreneurial skills. So we try to encourage them to work across programmes so that various disciplines are informing each other.”

The digital media start-up centre at IADT, known as The Cube, takes on projects directly from students and brings them into real life business situations. Several animation, business and technology success stories have come out of the centre in recent years.

While Dr Doona admits that they are met with a certain amount of defensiveness from students who aren’t interested in business, the notion that all science and technology students don’t understand the market is unfair. One only needs to refer to the late Steve Jobs to know that innovators come in all shapes and sizes.

Dr O’Flaherty also recognises this in his own university UCC. “Science students appreciate the opportunity to study entrepreneurship and engage with the education in a constructive manner and understand why it is of critical importance,” he says. “This is supported by anecdotal evidence within UCC, where the university is actively developing incubation centres and university-wide entrepreneurship programmes and modules.

“For example, this year, all incoming PhD students at the National Tyndall Institute have opted for the embedded postgraduate certificate in innovation, commercialisation and entrepreneurship, a business development qualification being offered by the college of business and law, UCC.”

The recent shift towards more multidisciplinary approaches to education means collaboration is beneficial to all parties. “It’s always been a challenge for us to get technology-minded people to think of the market and think of the final customer,” says Martin Lyes. “So it is good that we’ve moved more towards getting teams of people from a variety of backgrounds together so they can benefit form each other’s complementary skills.

“While you can certainly teach the makings of how to start a business and get it up and running, the energy and commitment needs to be in the individual,” says Lyes. “That said, we’ve had EI entrepreneurship training programmes running for a long time.

“We encourage people at graduate level to think about business, not to be frightened by failure. We have to get to the point that failure is just a learning exercise. Very few people get it right the first time.”

Learning to fail is probably something the science student is better equipped to deal with given the trial-and-error nature of laboratory research. For those without this experience, this important learning curve can and should be formally taught at third level.

“The economic challenges facing Ireland are sizeable, and the role universities can play in cultivating a new and vibrant Irish entrepreneurial culture should not be underestimated,” says O’Flaherty.

“Widespread entrepreneurship education within universities can be a powerful enabler when you consider that a university as a social construction unleashes thousands of graduates into the economy every year.

“There is also a moral obligation of everyone in academia in receipt of exchequer-based research funding, from funding agencies such as Science Foundation Ireland, to seriously consider the commercial outcomes of their research and genuinely endeavour to create a real impact for Irish society. We need to move beyond the cliched ‘can-entrepreneurship-be-taught?’ discussion and embrace current thinking on growth strategies and how to accelerate and scale companies,” adds O’Flaherty.

“Budding entrepreneurs must be inspired to have the vision, ambition and skill-set to create and develop high-performance ventures, by not only focusing on ‘first-mover’ but more importantly on ‘first-scaler’ opportunities.”