Friday, June 10, 2016

The Enterprising Researcher: Innovation, Entrepreneurship and University IP

Let's have a break from pure cryptography for a moment. Lift your head from the security proof you are trying to come up with, or from the poly-time factoring algorithm you are coding. Now look around: each object surrounding you has passed through a lot of stages before becoming the commercial product you stare at. There is also a good chance that many of them were once ideas in published research papers, probably similar to those we are all planning to write at some point. Papers not only carrying academic work but content that, through efforts and developments and visions, ended up being an object in our everyday life.

"The Enterprising Researcher: Innovation, Entrepreneurship and University IP" is a workshop I attended organised by Bristol Basecamp. It shed light on the process an idea needs to undergo to become a product and gave insights on the fact that the word "entrepreneurship" carries a stronger meaning than just "commercialising an idea" (valuable by itself). It suggests a sense of innovation and creation: like an artist who uses brushes to outline figures (and more importantly emotions), the entrepreneur combines resources and ideas to shape new markets and products (from which, most importantly, desires of people arise). This poetic point of view was particularly evident in the first talk.

Harry Destecroix and Laurent Chabanne are respectively CEO and CSO of Ziylo, a spin-off of the University of Bristol with expertise in continuous carbohydrate sensing technology. They shared their experience in bringing an academic idea to the market: successes, problems, obstacles and satisfactions are all part of the start-upper's life! Among all, I was impressed by how much passion and dedication they put in their work, hence I will often quote their exact own words to briefly describe their story, which is really worth listening to.

Their journey began with a scientific discovery (sugar-sensing platforms using synthetic receptors to isolate glucose-like structures) which was the outcome of research carried out by Professor Anthony Davis' research group at the University of Bristol. We are in the academic world for now, hence usual laws governing scientific publications still rule. Entering the market is different: first of all, it requires money. Since the idea was born in the university, the first source of help came from the inside. Research and Enterprise Development (RED) provides support and assists the growth of entrepreneurs from within the university. This is not just the step where you need money though, but it is also the phase during which awareness and information about business are vital. As they said, you need to "find complementary skill sets to yours", for instance in someone who's expert of marketing because "it costs a lot of money and time to write a business plan" (and it’s not something they teach you in school, I may add). Eventually, you need to "stop talking about tech and do marketing". I also enjoyed the human factor around this point, as they suggested to start these kinds of adventures with people you trust, with friends! It reminds us that start-ups as well as huge corporations are first of all human communities.

Another crucial point is that the trip is not easy. Now they are successfully working with SETsquared and Innovate UK, but raising funding was an issue to face and there might be moments in which the project seems to be failing: "you need to get used to the fact that you can lose your job at any time. If you’re not ok with that, don't bother". The important thing is to always have a positive attitude and to have faith in what you're doing, after all "without downs you don't know when you're up".

Funding is just one (although quite steep to climb) obstacle you might encounter in your way to the market. I would like to reference another one they mentioned as there is a very important entrepreneurship lesson to learn there. Being a company in biochemistry, they needed labs: expensive and dedicated structures, not the kind listed on Rightmove! Instead of coping with their specific problem, they identified a potential market and they (very recently) founded NS Science, a commercial real estate company focused on providing labs and science facilities to businesses. I would like to stress the moral about "being entrepreneur" laying behind this example: they didn't just commercialise a service, but they shaped the need of a community. Now that their company is around, other people who have similar issues may feel the desire to produce something new thanks to NS Science's facilities. Even better: NS Science may inspire other people who put aside their ideas because of a lack of spaces, for instance. Let me give a final (rather famous) example of the "needs/desires creation" aspect of entrepreneurship: did you need iPads before they were invented? What changed apart from the invention of iPads itself? I believe that, after scratching the surface of possible answers, the outcome could be incredibly surprising.

The second talk took a step back: how to publish research ideas and related legal aspects. Kathryn Smith, Research Engagement Librarian, focused on the importance of easily available research papers through green open access, that is to say repositories of manuscripts that differ from the published version (even just in the formatting, sometimes) so that they can be freely released. This is motivated by the fact that some entities may have restricted access to research outcomes (industry, public sector, charity foundations…) and that "you don't know who's out there: investors, new collaborators, people who could possibly develop your work in ways you hadn't even thought of". In our specific field, ePrint is an example of green open access. The University of Bristol also has its own green open access repository called Pure, whose team also checks for possible legal incompatibilities with the journals the paper is published in. In these regards, she pointed to a really useful search engine for manuscript publication policies of journals: SHERPA/RoMEO. For example, the picture shows the result of querying "LNCS", where being a "RoMEO green journal" means that you "can archive pre-print and post-print or publisher's version/PDF".

The third talk was also focused on legal aspects: Sue Sunstrom, Head of Commercialisation and Impact Development, answered several questions about Intellectual Property (IP) and how they relate to the university. First of all, there exist different kinds of IP (trademark, copyright, patent, trade secret, design...). They offer different features and are applicable to different (either concrete or abstract) objects. Since it can be quite expensive, choosing the right form of IP (hence the right form of protection) is crucial. But defence against competitors is not the only reason why IPs matter: investors like them because they are a proof you own something different and possibly innovative. They make the object they protect valuable in some situations (think of industrial secrets, for instance) and, as every form of value, they can be used as a currency in commercial trades. The interest of universities in IPs on the outcomes of research stems from various motivations: develop practical applications (hence have an impact on society), attract funding (for new research, hence possibly new IPs, entering a virtuous circle) and strengthen the link with industry are just few of them.

The last talk was given by Prof Alan Palmer on translational life science research, exemplified by the process of commercialising drugs. Such a topic is indeed strictly related to the biomedical field and is about academic and industrial efforts made in order to develop new solutions for prevention, diagnosis, and therapies. I am intentionally brief here, just have a look at Prof Palmer’s Linkedin profile to have a feeling of who an entrepreneur is!

Back to our beloved crypto, I think that this event has added a brick to my personal awareness (and I hope yours, after this reading) about what is going on out there, following what AvonCrypt had started. That was the perfect occasion in which to see how these realities exist in our field too (and I have the feeling it is particularly fertile). Thanks to this event, I understood what probably happened to those companies behind the scenes and I also found out another example (my bad I didn't know it before!): there is a start-up in Bristol called KETS which has recently won a prize and related funding for their usage of "quantum cryptography to improve data encryption, ensuring information is safe in all situations, from bank transactions to critical infrastructure, and to individuals shopping online from the comfort of their own home".

As Harry and Laurent said during their talk, "start-upping involves learning" so "take a book and read about business and economics": a suggestion I will certainly follow.

(Thanks to Matthias, Simon and Marie-Sarah for comments and corrections)

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