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More startups, fewer holdups

Science entrepreneurs need to take a page out of the tech founder's book.

Science entrepreneurs need to take a page out of the tech founder's book.

Dr Anne Barnett

It’s too early. I couldn’t. It’s not right, not ready ... not yet. It’s the classic argument of market validation. The burgeoning world of digital startups sees entrepreneurs launching products by the cluster, based on little more than a sniff of a gap in the market. By necessity it’s high velocity seat-of the-pants stuff, and alongside the celebrated winners countless startups wither and fail before they get any traction.

The world of science and research commercialisation is all that, but upside down. It’s similar in one respect: progress is based on perceptions – in particular, that science always takes a long time to come to commercial fruition, and needs to be kept in development for much longer than the average tech startup.

It’s a convenient stereotype.

In my time working across research, industry and science commercialisation I’ve heard this time and time again, in various forms and from numerous corners of the commercialisation spectrum. Science entrepreneurs need to take a page out of the tech founder’s book.

Speed to market is easier if you’re pushing an early software prototype through the cloud. But while science and research commercialisation is a completely different space, we need to see more of this tech getting out of the safe surrounds of an institute (a dangerous perception itself) and engaging with the market as early as possible.

Focus is critical in the development of a scientific output, but at the early stages there is an opportunity to throw it out there and test what it could be. The period while the product is still in the early concept or research phase is when you have the luxury of time to talk to a range of potential users, explore disparate application areas, ask questions and get a comprehensive overview of what you could develop. Unfortunately the traditional scientific process runs counter to this.

Scientists are not used to disclosing before they have tested everything and published, so there is a natural tendency to not engage with the market. There are scientists that are willing and eager but lack the capability or knowledge to take this step, and then there are those that don’t want to, because the science rules don’t apply. Peer review of a half-developed idea by the uneducated masses? A fate worse than death to some, especially in a culture where success is so closely tied to individual performance and reputation.

The fact is, good science commercialisation, like any market focused venture, needs good market validation early on.

The entrepreneur and the scientist have core fundamentals in common. Both need to be creative and flexible, and the best of them blend process and method with that ability to pivot and adapt to solve unique problems on the fly.

In my experience they follow similar creative processes to solve their research and commercialisation challenges. There are remarkable but unacknowledged parallels between the scientific approach for problem solving and the steps followed during early stage commercial development.

That science and the commercialisation system do not work well together is a well- known story, one as frustrating for one side as it is for the other. Typical institutional tech transfer modes of thinking can be safe and comfortable, but hold back on making the necessary leap out. Because of that we aren’t seeing the best we can be in this arena.

Stereotypes abound; this article is full of them. The failing is in not encouraging these norms to be ignored and sci-tech entrepreneurs coached out into the world.Harness the similarities between the best scientists and the best entrepreneurs rather than the perceived differences to support these talented IP generators.

Anne Barnett has a PhD in physics and works as part of Creative HQ’s science commercialisation team, anne.barnett@creativehq.co.nz.