Research to Entrepreneurship: Report of One-Day Workshop for Technology Researchers
On Friday 7th September 2012, 19 researchers from the UK, Ireland, Greece, Lithuania and elsewhere – all of them working in fields of media computing and communications – met with top-flight entrepreneurs for a first-of-a-kind event in Tech City, London’s thriving hub of technology innovation.
Organised by George Whale and Lazaros Gymnopoulos of EMC2 and Paul Massey of mentorwell.com, and hosted by UK Trade and Investment at Hackney House (UKTI’s ‘pop-up’ showcase venue on Shoreditch High Street), the goal of the “Research to Entrepreneurship” workshop was to inspire technology researchers (both doctoral and post-doc) to develop commercially viable products or services alongside their research.
Providing the inspiration, the ‘Tech City Mentors’ – a dozen entrepreneurs, investors and professionals with extensive collective experience of technology business, and exceptionally well placed to help workshop participants navigate paths to entrepreneurship via commercialisation of research.
Participants brought with them a range of commercialisation proposals in various stages of formation – some quite detailed, some still sketchy. They included proposals for:
• data summarization services for wearable-camera-based market research;
• anti-counterfeiting technology for online shopping;
• shape analysis products for medical diagnosis;
• holistic solutions for photo trading;
• indoor digital antenna systems;
• gesture mapping engines for mobile devices;
• novel technologies for image classification and search.
Lean Startup Methodology
Conceptually the workshop was built around Lean Startup Methodology, a methodology that encourages product development and business success by working smarter but not harder. The methodology sees every startup* as an experiment that attempts to answer a question. The question is not "Can this product be built?" Instead, the questions are "Should this product be built?" and "Can we build a sustainable business around this set of products and services?" This is achieved with a rapid product development, testing, measurement and iteration cycle aimed at reaching a minimum viable product (MVP) which people will use and buy. It is important for the entrepreneur to identify flaws in a product and change them, or accept a business failure quickly (for example, due to lack of demand) and then pivot towards a new product.
A core element of Lean Startup Methodology is the ‘build-measure-learn’ feedback loop. The first step is figuring out the problem that needs to be solved and then developing a MVP to begin the process of learning as quickly as possible. Once the MVP is established, a startup identifies quantitative and qualitative metrics to determine the viability of the product, for example the number of users. A cause and effect loop is established, allowing products to be refined towards customer needs. Failure should not be feared but – as in Silicon Valley – an ethos of Failing Often, but Failing Early should be respected as part of the entrepreneur’s learning cycle.
(*Mark Babbitt, YouTern Founder and CEO defined a startup as “an entrepreneurial-driven organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model".)
Parallels Between Research and Entrepreneurship
Starting off the workshop with a presentation entitled “Researcher as Entrepreneur”, Dr Kevin Byron of Queen Mary, University of London explored parallels between research and enterprise, and compellingly demonstrated them by mapping the ‘Enquiry Wheel’ onto ‘The Enterprise Cycle’.
Kevin enumerated the skills needed by entrepreneurs, and showed that many of the researchers’ existing core skills are directly transferable to the business domain. He spoke of demographics, lifestyle and new scientific knowledge as drivers of innovation, and finally pointed to important sources of expert knowledge for would-be technology entrepreneurs, including university business units. (Download Kevin Byron: (151).)
Next, in a talk entitled “I founded a technology company – so can you!” Victor Henning of mendeley.com spoke about his personal journey from PhD research to successfully running a company. (Victor’s product Mendeley is a free reference manager and academic social network for researchers that supports organisation of sources, online collaboration, and discovery of new research.) He showed the many obstacles facing technology startups and spoke of the huge sense of achievement that is gained in overcoming them.
In the first workshop session – "Tomorrow’s Products From Today’s Research" – Tech City Mentors guided participants through the first stages of generating a business model from their initial concepts using the The Business Model Canvas.
The Business Model Canvas, described as a ‘visual brainstorming tool’, includes nine interrelated business building blocks. In face-to-face sessions with mentors, researchers worked individually or in small groups to evolve startup ideas and populate the Canvas by identifying Customer Segments, Revenue Streams, Key Activities and other building blocks, and then reshaping the initial startup proposition in light of these discoveries.
As became apparent to participants during this iterative process, no element of the Canvas works in isolation and the initial business idea is not implemented in a vacuum.
The Canvas helped participants to understand whether their business proposition derived from their own research activities or was driven by customer demand. The process helped them to uncover the Value Proposition to be provided to customers, i.e. the problem solved or the need satisfied.
In the second workshop session – "Presentation Masterclass" – Annette Kramer showed participants how to make a ‘killer’ pitch to potential backers and investors by communicating the business concept quickly, clearly and assuredly. Three brave participants were put through their paces, rapidly improving their pitching techniques under Annette’s skilled guidance.
In the third and final workshop session – "Speed Mentoring" – each participant faced Tech City mentors one after another in a fun, frenetic mentoring session designed to promote rapid pitching, critical questioning and goal-defining feedback.
Rounding off the day, Ricardo Parro inspired participants with his personal account of entrepreneurial success – the establishment of printi.com.br, a startup that set out to ‘disrupt‘ the online printing industry in Brazil. Ricardo elaborated his ‘Top Ten Findings’ on the path from research to entrepreneurship, which included:
#1 Fail. Learn. Improve. Fail again.
#3 Stay Positive.
#5 Always look for problems to solve.
#6 Find your business partners.
#10 It is not only about a startup. It is about what you become when you are in a startup!
(Download Ricardo Parro: (109).)
There followed a group feedback session in which researcher-participants shared their main lessons of the day.
Finally, Paul Massey invited participants to follow up the day’s work via continued contact with mentors using the online collaboration tools at mentorwell.com.
EMC2 may organise further workshops of this kind. If you are interested in attending one of them, please contact us.