Lessons in commercialising a PhD| THE Campus Learn, Share … – Times Higher Education

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Engineering biologist Maggie Hicks shares what she has learned on her journey towards commercialising her PhD, with business partner and fellow PhD student Florentina Winkelmann
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Commercialising your research really means thinking about it in a different way – in terms of what its value could be to someone else. For my PhD, I am creating a skin patch that uses sweat to detect potentially problematic body states, but it was Flo, who is doing her own PhD, who suggested we commercialise my work. Through our company SynSense, we hope to eventually offer a low cost, non-invasive device that will be used routinely in medical practice.
Even if we don’t make it, we are learning so much – about how a company works, about intellectual property, writing funding applications, financial planning – who doesn’t need that stuff? At the very least, we will be more employable. And if we succeed, we will make a difference in the world of global healthcare.
Here are our tips for commercialising your PhD based on our journey so far.
You’re doing a PhD, so you have writing deadlines, lab work…and maybe you want to take a holiday occasionally! Working with someone else means you can juggle networking and workshop attendance with funding proposal and research deadlines. And you can bounce ideas off each other. It’s a lot more fun working on a funding proposal over a meal and a glass of wine than slogging it out alone. I could never have done this without Flo.
Flo had said that it would be cool to turn my PhD into a company, but we had no idea what the next steps might be. Then we got a department email about an event organised by Edinburgh Innovations (EI), the University of Edinburgh’s commercialisation service, featuring other students who had started a business. And they were offering pizza, so of course we went along! We had some great conversations, and on the way out you could scan a QR code to find out more. Flo scanned it, and we ended up with a business adviser.
One of the most valuable things we learned from our adviser is how to protect your intellectual property (IP). Think “patent before publishing”. In academia you’re told publish, publish, publish – posters, presentations, papers – but actually you might want to hold off, as you could be giving away your IP.
There are lots of different kinds of IP, it’s not just patenting, there are design rights, copyright. And ideas, art and design can be protected, as well as technology.
You also need to think about other people’s IP. If we had known this earlier, we might have designed things differently. If you use patented lab techniques in the production of work you later commercialise, then you could be sued if you haven’t licensed it. Patents are publicly listed so they’re easy to find in an internet search, and you can usually find alternatives – an earlier version, for example, that might need a little optimisation but then can work just as well.
We joined a university business accelerator programme, which was a crash course in a lot of useful things, but particularly learning to pitch. If you’ve mainly been in academia, you might not be used to selling yourself, but we have learned to pitch our company in one minute, in three minutes, even in casual conversation. It was also great for our confidence – we started out thinking we probably weren’t eligible, or good enough, but recently pitched for £170K from the UK’s Defence and Security Accelerator.
Through the accelerator we became part of a cohort, most of whom were further along in the process, which was really inspiring, and we learned a lot from each other. At the end, we had to pitch for a share of £10K of investment, but most of it didn’t feel like a competition – it felt supportive. We shared knowledge and resources, and we’ve kept in touch. Listen out for opportunities – it’s never too soon to build your network.
Our business adviser was great at flagging grant opportunities. Start by looking at what your university is offering – even if at first you think it wouldn’t apply to you. There might be tweaks you can make so that you are eligible. We are applying for some funding from a different part of the university by renting some low-cost lab space there.
Edinburgh has an in-house venture capital fund and lets you keep your IP if you’re a student, so look into your university’s policy. We are trying to build value for our company through grant money, in the hope of raising bigger investment later on, but going for investment early might be suitable for you.
Maggie Hicks is a PhD student in synthetic biology at the University of Edinburgh and co-founder of SynSense.
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