How to make money from your science

By Shaun Hendy 22/11/2009 8

The MacDiarmid Institute held its annual meeting at the University of Auckland this year.  This year’s theme was ’How to make money from your $cience’.  Our students and post-docs participated, along with a number of students from Singapore.  The science students were taught how to write a business plan, then put into teams together with a student from the University’s business school.  Each team was asked to brainstorm a business idea to present to a ‘dragon’s den’ panel.

Now, we don’t expect all our students to become hot shot entrepreneurs (although a good many of them do want to, and no doubt will), but even those who remain in academia will find the ability to present a sound business case to be essential. 

On the day, the teams pitched concepts ranging from long-life ice cream to rapidly switchable, tintable coatings for glass.  The team that won had an idea for a fetal health monitoring device.  In the end, I think everyone enjoyed themselves immensely.  We will be preparing a podcast based on interviews with the students during the event so you can hear what they really thought!   

One session of the meeting was a talk from Basil Sharp, a University of Auckland economist who mused on why New Zealand’s patenting rate was so low when its number of researchers was so high.  (He suggested ‘market failure’, but if you read this blog you will know that many of our ‘researchers’ are not scientists or engineers.) 

We also had a talk by Brett Wells from Aeroqual who discussed the fun of successfully running a high tech start-up company in New Zealand.  This was very interesting and generated a lot of discussion — it was evident from Brett’s talk that the support and patience of Aeroqual’s investors has been critical to its success.  I hear many explanations for why New Zealand is not good at producing high tech start-ups, but those in the game such as Brett often don’t see many disadvantages at all. 

My thanks go to David Williams from the University of Auckland for organising the event. David’s career is a case-study in making the transition from academia to industry and back (he has even done this more than once).  He is certainly someone who knows how to make money from his science. 

8 Responses to “How to make money from your science”

  • I’d be interested in your thoughts as to why David Williams was able to move back into academia “easily” (of course I’m “assuming” it was easy, I know reality can differ). I’m asking, as it’s commonly said that leaving academia for commercial science is usually a one-way trip. Perhaps he never really left, in the sense that he was a university staff member granted extended leave to form a company associated with the university? Perhaps engineering better recognises achievements outside academia than, say, biology?

  • A few minutes with David is enough to convince most people that he is an exceptional character. It may well be easier in engineering and physical sciences, but I don’t think it was a matter of his University granting him leave. His ability to maintain an academically credible research record while in the business world (David has > 200 papers and 40 patents) is likely to have been crucial.

  • Shaun

    A few random thoughts on this and your posts on Patenting:

    1. While I think it is obviously good for students to have an appreciation of business, I am somewhat sceptical of the new orthodoxy that seems to be focusing on “invention -> start-up -> riches” as the means for science to contribute to the economy. I suspect that the alternative path of “existing company -> increased technology intensity -> riches” is much more important (for the rewards I see F&P HC added ~$100m to their turnover last FY).

    I suspect the former model is getting traction because it is the method that fits best with the investigator led model, and that much of the existing debate in NZ is being led by investigators. The problem is that “technology push” requires significant levels of scarce resources going well beyond the RS&T stage. Where we are going to do technology push we should focus on a small number of areas with platform characteristics (to spread the risk) and do them well, and do them with a clear market need in mind – even if that remains some way off.

    An implication is that a critical phase in RS&T management is moving from a large number of serendipitous investigator initiated research projects (often seeded in Universities) and aggregating that capability into platforms that are mission oriented, applied, and preferably linked to NZ’s current or emerging business strengths.

    This has happened in a small number of notable occasions in NZ largely driven by key individuals. We should do this more systematically even if it offends our egalitarian instincts. We should be willing to get behind these platforms as they emerge to not only sustain the RS&T but also to exploit the commercial opportunities they spawn.

    I should note that I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t support specific “invention -> start-up -> riches” when they arise; just that it isn’t the main game and is probably getting the appropriate level of support already.

    In summary I’d be encouraging young scientists to be thinking “how can I link my work up to others so we get critical mass in a value chain that will extend the capability of an exisiting NZ business” rather than “how do I spin this off into a business”. Among other things one technology doesn’t make a business.

    2. Which brings me to the second point. RS&T needs to do better at increasing the technology intensity of existing businesses (and supporting those on the journey). As I’ve noted the NZ economic growth debate seems to be largely focused on making money from the smart idea. Increasing the technology intensity of firms involves rebalancing the debate to also talk about them having the appetite and access to appropriate employees (and your patenting posts have touched on this) and improving access to technological solutions internationally rather than trying to invent them all here.

    3. While obviously agglomeration effects influence our relative patenting activities, I’m a little surprised more discussion hasn’t been going on around changing the criteria for the PBRF to include international patenting activities as a means to increase the status of the applied sciences in universities.

    I also think a little more comparative analysis of the institutions doing the patenting could be enlightening in terms of what’s happenign in NZ. About a year a go I had a crude look at patenting activity (as defined by WIPO publication) for the last 5 years in technologies relevant to sensor networks. Of the 104 applications, 12 were in the name of universities; 22 CRIs; and 70 companies. Note this didn’t look back through the company patents to see if research organisations were sitting behind them.

  • How does he publish while in business? Still have students on the side in the university? Convince the investors that some funds can go to publishing? (As a form of advertising, perhaps?)

    The time needed to do research and run a consultancy (or other business) is a hard ask. I am slowly doing a little research unpaid that I hope might one day attract a research grant but for practical reasons it has to come second to working towards making a living.

  • Without wanting to put words into David’s mouth, a patent specification is often not too far from a submittable journal article, and indeed some companies do see journal articles as advertising.

    However, I can see that in consulting it would be a completely different matter – in many instances I expect your clients would not allow you to publish or patent. Even scientists in CRIs who are primarily in a consulting role can struggle if they are not able to keep up their publication record, let alone those who consult in a private capacity. Our innovation system (both private and public) does not seem to be able to support this type of activity consistently.

  • Started to reply to you, it got longer (and longer), then realised I was writing a post I’d wanted to write for a while, so I’ve put it up instead! Thanks for prodding me into it 🙂