Why Great Ideas Don't Make It Out Of University
If I asked you to name an extraordinary, world-changing scientist, your answer might be “Albert Einstein”. If I asked you to name a self-determined, driven entrepreneur, you may respond with “Steve Jobs”. If I asked you to name a notable scientific entrepreneur... you’d most likely scratch your head and tell me “that’s a made-up term”…
Unfortunately, this is the response from the overwhelming majority of the general public, and perhaps more worryingly, investors, professional services, and even scientists themselves. Despite this, most scientists still identify with the idea that part of the motivation to carry out research is ultimately to “progress ideas for the betterment of humanity”. The metric for how well a scientist is achieving this goal, too often, is how many scientific publications they have to their name, rather than how many of these discoveries have made their way to the public.
Whilst the argument could be made that taking new technologies out of the lab is not necessarily the responsibility of the scientists, the question remains: whose job is it? And why don’t we see more output from chemistry, physics, and life science departments across the country?
If you were to flick through the pages of scientific journals found on the shelves of any academic’s office, you will stumble across hundreds of hours of research with the potential to make some difference in the world. Though things are slowly changing, the opportunity to pause and consider the commercial implication of a discovery, is often consumed by the drive to publish. The downside to this rush to publish is that those ideas become extremely difficult to leverage commercially, so the benefits of that knowledge may struggle to reach the public.
For the few scientists who do attempt to take their work out of the lab, they face a choice of one of two options. Either, with the help of the Technology Transfer Office (TTO), they can try to license the ideas out to industry, where very often the response is “...interesting idea, but slightly too early for us. Could you spend five more years on it, then come back?”
Alternatively, an academic can try to spin out the technology, licensing the idea to a company under their control: a route which may sound exciting, but the practicality can present a distraction to continuing a major research effort whilst effectively managing a research group. The solution, often, is to hire in a CEO who has “been there and done it before”, which usually comes with the associated price tag.
The end result is that both paths are difficult; by no means insurmountable, but they do constrict the flow of ideas out of a university.
Compared to the slow drip of technologies reaching the outside world, there is a flood of PhD-qualified scientists seeking jobs outside of academic science. According to a study by the Royal Society, over 50% of PhD researchers leave science altogether within the first year of graduating, as the supply of postdocs, lectureships, and academic positions remains scarce.
This is where I think we have an opportunity.
With some support from a deep science innovation ecosystem, a graduating PhD scientist armed with strong IP and incentivised through equity can be the perfect vehicle to translate discoveries into the marketplace. This creates a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation at the research level; harnessing a flow of talent to translate ideas out to the real world, all while building job opportunities closely tied to research groups.
As the infrastructure barrier to starting up a science company lowers, with initiatives like Unit DX coming on-line, the opportunity to build companies based on novel deep tech becomes increasingly accessible. All that’s left to do is unblock the pipeline.