Universities are now coming round to the idea of creating enterprising scientists with a variety of backgrounds.
We all keep being told how British Universities are producing lots of novel and innovative ideas, but do the inventors have the skills to take these inventions to market? Manchester Science Enterprise Centre (MSEC) is one of twelve UK wide centres teaching students to exploit these ideas for the benefit of universities and the British economy as a whole.
MSEC was set up in 2000 with government funding and the overall idea of embedding enterprise in higher education – to produce students who are more enterprising. Although we are based at The University of Manchester we are very much a partnership organisation, we also deliver courses at Manchester Metropolitan University and Salford University at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. We also have our unique flagship programme the postgraduate Master of Enterprise degree (M.Ent).
“Enterprise” is more than simply business studies, although it does need to include topics such as finance, risk management, intellectual property issues and marketing. More importantly it teaches students to find innovative solutions to problems and gives confidence – essential when trying to position a new entrepreneurial venture in a competitive market place. There is an emphasis on active participation for learning so although some straight lectures are necessary for getting across the facts, workshops are used for project work and testing out ideas. Indeed, the postgraduate project is to actually turn the idea into a live business!
At undergraduate level we teach modules within traditional subject areas so if the student has an idea in the future they will know how to move it forward. Many traditional subject areas are now offering our modules within their courses. The Masters course (M.Ent) involves spending half their time in their subject area and the other half with us learning how to turn the idea into a business. The student would either have an idea with potential for commercialisation in their area of study or some ideas can be provided from links with industry or from academics at the university. The Masters students are based in the business creation unit where they have a desk space, computer and phone in an open area which encourages communication with each other and with staff who can provide a broad range of expertise and contacts. This year’s intake for the Masters consists of students from a wide range of subject areas including chemistry, computer science, textiles, engineering etc. The masters programme makes good use of external speakers such as local entrepreneur role models who have “made it”, experts in technology transfer and marketing and venture capitalists.
We are aware of the necessity to have transferable skills in addition to in-depth specialist knowledge of the subject area on leaving university, so during the courses students also learn to work in groups, presentation skills using Powerpoint, database searching and writing concise reports. These are skills which would obviously be valuable no matter where the student works in the future.
We are constantly upgrading our courses with new material and tailoring courses for specific subject areas by picking out relevant case studies in each subject area. Being entrepreneurial ourselves, we also try to keep up with the latest developments in teaching by setting up web-based learning systems.
What makes an Enterprise Fellow?
I am one of three new enterprise fellows who were taken on last September, chosen for the ability to relate to different subject areas when teaching enterprise. Although we are all formerly lab based scientists, we have a mixture of skills.
My background is in biochemistry, where I worked on a patented antibody binding protein (useful for detection and purification of antibodies) during my industrially sponsored CASE studentship PhD at Southampton University. This was followed by a postdoc in G protein kinetics at the National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill, London, using a patented fluorescent phosphate sensor based on E.coli phosphate binding protein. I also had some experience of industry having worked at GlaxoSmithKline R&D (Greenford site) during my MSc project at UCL on high throughput screening.
I became interested in the business side of science while observing the commercialisation process but there seemed to be no formal training available within academia – I was finding information informally and from the internet. As the end of my postdoc approached, I could see that my research was becoming more and more specialised and I was writing papers that were being read by maybe 10 people on the entire planet. I was still interested in science but on a broader front, and more concerned with a useful end product rather than simply pure research. The position advertised at MSEC teaching enterprise while working on our own business projects seemed ideal. My current project involves setting up a company based on carbohydrate biochemistry in conjunction with the University of Manchester innovation Centre (UMIC).
Primarily my function is as a trainee enterprise academic, that is I am hoping to become one of the ‘new breed’ of academics who are teaching in this very novel and exciting field of enterprise.
The beauty of the fellowship scheme is the diversity of jobs it allows me to engage in. These include: firstly, teaching undergraduates to be more enterprising, thus giving them the relevant business tools to add to their chosen science degree. The end result is hopefully to make them more commercially aware as well as making them more marketable as individuals. Secondly, the fellowship has given me the opportunity to try my hand at setting up my own business, using all the skills and resources that MSEC has to offer. I am currently working on the idea of an e-business revolving around laboratory equipment. As well this I am also able to develop my interest in technology transfer and early stage business creation.
I come from a predominantly biological background, with a first degree in Zoology, followed up by a Masters from Imperial College. Having stayed on at Imperial, I eventually found myself working in the area of science management, within the Biological Science Faculty. Here I was exposed to various academics in the early throws of creating bio-tech start-ups. What really caught my attention was the possibility of combining both science and business.
I took the decision to give up my job at Imperial to do an MBA specialising in Entrepreneurship, with the long term idea of getting into the technology transfer field. Thanks to MSEC, I am in the process of accomplishing this dream.
I am an enterprise fellow at MSEC and I joined the Centre in September 2004. Prior to this I worked as a senior experimental officer in the Forensic Science and Volatile Organic Chemistry Laboratory in the Department of Analytical Science (DIAS) (now Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science) at UMIST. I joined UMIST in September 1999 as a PhD student. My research involved developing a measurement technique by combining a switching high-resolution ion mobility spectrometer and a mass spectrometer and using a unique pulsed corona discharge source. My research was sponsored by dstl. My first degree is in electronic engineering and I also have a PGCE in further education teaching. I worked for thirteen years in industry and spent most of my working life in the analytical instrumentation field.
I have had several jobs including working as an electronics design engineer on both surface science and high-resolution mass spectrometer techniques. I worked as an installation engineer on process mass spectrometers and as a technical support/service engineer in Canada and the USA supporting a range of instrumentation including various types of mass spectrometers, XRF and ICP. I also worked as a sales engineer selling power analysers and process analysis equipment.
I joined MSEC because I was looking to use the teaching skills that I gained through my PGCE and had developed through part-time teaching in electronic engineering. I am also setting up my own company producing presentations and documentation for analytical instrumentation. I know that MSEC will offer me the opportunity to put my previous experience to use by helping students to learn about entrepreneurship and intrepreneurship. I believe that MSEC provides students with valuable skills that will give them an advantage in their future careers.
Day to day activities
The role of enterprise fellow involves on the job training to be a new class of enterprise lecturer from specific subject areas. We have extremely varied day to day tasks which we are free to time manage as we choose. Our teaching duties began soon after starting with several lectures and workshops per week. In addition to our teaching duties we work on our own business projects.
We also attend events such as BEX (Business Exchange) – an event matching inventors and ideas with sources of funding, mixing with venture capitalists and business angels to help the students, and ourselves, find funding for our ventures. Networking forms an important part of our job and we have recently set up a link with Lueneburg University – an entrepreneurial university in Germany. This link grew out of a technology management workshop we all attended in the Netherlands where we worked with a company who made artificial grass for football pitches. Closer to home we are members of a local network of entrepreneurs and regularly attend events such as shop and bar openings (often with a free bar!) with a good chance to speak to often well known and extremely dynamic entrepreneurs.
It is also necessary for us to keep up to date with all the latest developments in technology transfer e.g. legal and publishing issues which we do by attending courses and going to international conferences and workshops.
There is no doubt that interest in enterprise in universities is gathering momentum. More and more heads of departments are asking for modules to be included in their traditional subject areas. Previously universities have been slow to adapt to an enterprise culture with spin off companies still being rare, this may have been in part be due to group leaders wanting to concentrate on their main job – research, rather than spend time on a commercial venture which would not be recognised as an achievement by the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise). Now most universities have technology transfer departments that spin out companies and negotiate license agreements with the corporate sector. An indication of the value of commercialisation of research is probably best described by the MRC, if they had patented monoclonal antibodies when they were first produced in 1976 would now be entirely self sufficient!
By Robert Phillips