Building entrepreneurial skills during your PhD

Building entrepreneurial skills during your PhD

Building entrepreneurial skills during your PhD

PhD students and entrepreneurs are actually very similar in a number of ways. PhD students are already very entrepreneurial by nature – there aren’t many roles you can go into and say ‘here is the gap, and this is how we are going to address it’.

At the Institute, we encourage and empower our PhD students to gain knowledge beyond what they would learn through their research alone and giving them the confidence to understand the value of their skills for their future careers. One such opportunity to gain these skills is through the Young Entrepreneurs Scheme (YES). PhD student Neesha Kara, a PhD student in the Houseley lab, and her team from across the University of Cambridge won the competition in 2021, successfully pitching their hypothetical start-up GeneSense to eight venture capital investors. They successfully convinced investors for a £2M investment for a share in the company. We asked Neesha to share more about her experience and why she would recommend others enter in the future.

What is the YES competition and why did you enter?

Biotechnology YES is a global business competition that allows PhD students and post-docs to gain experience of the bioscience commercialisation process. You can participate as a team from your university and the idea is that you develop a business plan for a start-up company based on a hypothetical, but plausible, idea. I decided to enter the competition because I was interested in learning about the entrepreneurial side of science and how this could fit into a future career.

What is GeneSense and how did you come up with the idea?

GeneSense was the name of our start-up, where our product was a novel liquid biopsy detection device for at-home monitoring of cancer patients. A few of us in our team had a basic background in cancer research, which complemented others in the team that had experience in working with DNA detection technology, so the field of liquid biopsy for cancer detection was very attractive to us. We decided we wanted to combine the latest technologies in personalised medicine whilst enhancing the quality of care for cancer patients undergoing treatment. Although GeneSense is hypothetical, the competition was an opportunity to understand how scientific ideas are commercialised.

What stages did the competition involve?

In the first round of the competition, we had a three day workshop & mentoring scheme where we learned about different aspects of business, finance, and legal sectors in the biosciences. At the end of this, we had to pitch our idea to a panel of judges competing against around 40 other teams from universities across the UK. After this round, three teams were then selected to compete in the final of the competition a month later.

The mentoring scheme in the programme was particularly valuable as we could engage with many successful leaders in the biotechnology/business field which I think really enhanced the whole experience and also built some great connections for the future. Teams are judged not only on the plausibility of the research, but also on the development and intellectual property strategy, marketing approach, financial planning, and the management and personnel strategy. 

How did you find pitching to the judges?

I was quite nervous during the pitch at first, as we knew the judges were all experts in their fields in the commercialisation sector, but the whole process was actually very enjoyable in the end because the judges were all very friendly and keen to offer their advice to progress our idea.

What were the main lessons you learnt from participating in YES21?

The whole competition experience was very valuable for me, because not only did I learn a lot about the different aspects of the commercialisation process, but also it opened my eyes to the massive variety of career opportunities that exist for people with a life science PhD. Another thing I learned was how to work successfully in a team, and how important it can be to have the right balance of skillsets within a commercial work environment. We learned about the importance of intellectual property, what is involved in financing a company and that a great idea is not sufficient.

What would you say to PhD students and postdocs who want to enter in the future? What would you advice be?

If you are interested in trying something a bit different outside of your PhD/research then I would definitely say go for it. In terms of the skills and training you get from the competition, I think it was one of the best I have experienced. It was a bit unfortunate that I didn’t get to experience the whole competition in person (it was all online), so I imagine being able to attend the three day workshop is even better!

If I had one bit of advice, it would be to make sure your group can cooperate as a team; I think this really fuelled our success and also makes it a lot more enjoyable when you make friends along the way! When we were invited to the finals after the first round of the competition I think our whole team was shocked that we had made it that far, but this also really built up our confidence and motivation to succeed in the final, so after a further two months of hard work we were glad it paid off. Having never met each other before the competition and working so well as a team over the past eight months we were all very pleased to win the competition together!


Photo (L-R): William McCarthy, Neesha Kara, Sabila Chilaeva, Anna Suchankova and Daniel Kottmann.