Scientists need to be Entrepreneurs?

By Aaron Small 07/10/2009

A few posts back, I posted my interpretations of the remarks made by Chief Scientist Sir Peter Gluckman at a seminar in Wellington on ‘Can Transforming Science Transform New Zealand’. As I pointed out in the post, I agree with Sir Peter on his comments that the boundaries between science and business are blurred. As he said, there has been a shift towards scientists taking responsibility for business in proposals for funding. This leads to confusion and ultimately second rate science from which not much can be achieved. The scientists should be left the research and business should be left to the development.

Last week I noticed that Godfrey Bridger wrote in his opinion piece in the Dom Post that ‘Scientists Must Become Entrepreneurs’ and that money should be spent to train scientists in business on the job. The danger with this approach is that we will lose the fundamentals of basic research if all our scientists are ‘forced’ to conform to some entrepreneurial stereotype. Like Sir Peter, and Simon Upton, I believe that money would be better spent training experts to understand the technology transfer and commercialisation process, and to attract large multinationals to NZ that have money to invest in RST.

Isis Innovations, Oxford University’s tech transfer arm, are one of the most successful companies in the world at commercialising university research. Managing Director, Tom Hockaday, states that Isis will only commercialise an inventors research if the inventor wishes. That is a quite an important point, and illustrates to me that not all scientists need to be entrepreneurs for successful high growth businesses to emerge – we just have to understand the parties involved and the processes a little better. Like the Gen Y Scientist points out, and which I think that Tom Hockaday is saying as well, is that universities are complicated beasts. There are issues around publication vs. patenting, time for teaching etc, all which need to be ironed out or understood a little better.

And while it’s true that a lot of the world’s most innovative technologies have come out of universities, people seem to forget that the private sector has played an important role in innovation in other countries with their huge R&D budgets. Take Finland for example. It trained its population in Finnish universities, that then went on to work for Nokia, which reinvested its R&D budget in Finland. Hence, the universities were focused on fundamental research while transformational research (or more specifically, development) could be done by the multinationals. The same could be said for Pharmaceutical Multinational’s in Singapore. NZ’s private sector investment remains woefully low, and so perhaps in NZ the focus has fallen on public sector R&D to make up for the shortcomings of its supposedly bigger brother. Federated Farmers CEO, Connor English (brother of Finance Minister Bill), has recently questioned the absence of multinational agri-companies like Rabobank, GSK, Syngenta and Bayer Cropscience in New Zealand – I couldn’t agree more.

Scientists will continue to beat the drum for the importance of their work and they will cleverly figure out how to get the most out of the miserly amounts of funding they are given. We do need some scientists with an entrepreneurial spirit of course (just as we need IT professionals, designers and engineers with entrepreneurial spirits also), but at some point somebody must also step up and play a part too.

But hey, that’s fine. Us scientists will just add it to the long list of other things required of us – scientist, problem solver, government lobbyist, environmental protectionist, PR and media guru, crystal ball gazer and now businessman and entrepreneur…