Why scientists in academia need to think like entrepreneurs

Why scientists in academia need to think like entrepreneurs

Why scientists in academia need to think like entrepreneurs

The Cambridge Phenomenon

Christmas of 2013 marked my first journey to Cambridge, a city I had never even dared to imagine for studying or working. Fresh from graduation and training to become a neonatologist, I was keen to develop my research skills. Opportunities in Egypt, my home country, were limited, particularly in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. In searching for opportunities, I was fortunate to cross paths with like-minded clinicians looking for research opportunities too. Together, we established a contract research organisation to provide clinical trials and public health research services and address the lack of this research for others too. Before long, we were working with international organisations, including UNICEF and WHO, on health equity projects in underserved regions. It was a significant and impactful research guiding health policies not only in the country but across the region, yet far from cutting-edge molecular and cellular technologies that I first aspired to do. We also faced many challenges and a steep learning curve as a start-up in a nascent ecosystem. Therefore, I decided to move abroad.

Serendipity intervened during my Cambridge visit, introducing me to Dr Arnoud Groen, a research scientist at the University of Cambridge. Our conversation affirmed my interest in proteomics as an emerging technology with the potential to build upon advances in genomics. Moreover, it hinted at the potential to translate academic research into a viable startup, an area Arnoud was keenly interested in. This opened my eyes to Cambridge’s potential as more than just an academic utopia but also as a vibrant ecosystem for converting world-class academic research into real-world technological applications.

Three years on, I made my return to Cambridge, this time as a PhD candidate at King's College, the very place I had stayed during my initial visit. I joined the research group in the Department of Biochemistry, where Arnoud had previously worked, eager to build entrepreneurial skills and dive into an ecosystem brimming with ingenuity and a proven track record. From the ground-breaking sequencing-by-synthesis technology to the revolutionary ARM Processor technology, Cambridge is truly synonymous with innovation. With over 5,000 start-ups employing over 60,000 people and generating £21 billion in annual turnover, showcasing an extraordinary impact relative to its size and securing its label as the 'Cambridge Phenomenon'. The city's thriving success is grounded in a rich ecosystem that fosters academic spin-outs, thanks to a unique entrepreneurial spirit and a vibrant culture of collaboration amongst researchers, entrepreneurs, and the industry.

The Case for the Entrepreneurial Scientist

Mo Elzek speaking at an event

The shift in academic culture towards entrepreneurship is profound; entrepreneurial skills are no longer just ‘desirable’ or ‘nice to have’—they are increasingly becoming essential in academic setting too. Scientists, whether in academia or industry, are adopting an entrepreneurial mindset, constantly seeking collaborations, recognising gaps beyond their focused research areas, enhancing real-world impact, and cultivating a culture defined by creative problem-solving, open communication, and flat hierarchies. These skills are increasingly becoming invaluable within academic teams, especially as collaborations with start-ups and industry become more common. This paradigm shift has opened new funding opportunities that target research with potential for commercialisation, supported by grants such as Innovate UK, the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programmes, while many others funding bodies are also taking note. Notably, the Babraham Institute is recognised for its remarkable track record of successful spin-outs, surrounded by an entrepreneurial environment of over 60 companies of varying sizes, and setting a great example where academia and entrepreneurship are intertwined.

Cambridge is a unique place in providing a wealth of opportunities and networks for nurturing entrepreneurial talent. Programmes such as EnterpriseTech and Bio-Spark offer a range of resources from networking opportunities and part-time internships at start-ups, to brilliant mentorship for those starting their founding journey.

The Babraham Institute often supports its staff with scholarships for such developmental programmes. The Knowledge Exchange and Commercialisation (KEC) team at the Institute is expanding, offering not only opportunities for networking and mentorships but insights into the intellectual property landscape, fostering key partnerships, and aiding with commercialisation and business support. Initiating discussions early is essential, even when the route to commercialisation is not immediately obvious. Meanwhile, Babraham Accelerate provides non-dilutive funding, lab space, and mentorship, which are critical in preparing startups for next round of investment. Furthermore, Cambridge hosts many pitching competitions, including the Chris Abell post-doc business plan competition, Cambridge University Entrepreneurs, in addition to many college-based competitions showcasing the breadth of opportunities available.

Personal Experience at Newton Venture Program

Throughout my career, I have always embraced the discomfort of new horizons and the learning curves that they bring. Joining the Newton Venture Program at London Business School last March was one of these enriching opportunities that expanded my understanding of the venture capital industry, science commercialisation, and technology transfer. This wonderful opportunity came after a 360 Science career session shed the light on the nuances of science commercialisation and start-up funding as explained by Dr Rabab Nasrallah, a former post-doc at the Institute, turned early-stage startup investor.

The experience at Newton went far beyond learning the finance lingo, metrics, and benchmarks, and delving into behavioural economics lectures, developing a mindset conducive to working with start-ups—from understanding cognitive biases and addressing diversity challenges to cultivating empathetic leadership and effective communication. The journey was introspective yet engaging, with interactive workshops, personalised coaching, and even Venture Capital-themed Monopoly games (see picture above). This was only possible through a BBSRC grant, with kind assistance from Dr Emily Boyce, the Institute's Knowledge Exchange Manager, and the support of my supervisor, Dr Claudia Ribeiro de Almeida.

The culmination of my fellowship involved creating a 'Fellow Vision', focusing on exploring the breadth of opportunities within the longevity economy and identifying alternative funding sources, including grants, to enable technological innovations for the ageing populations. The emphasis on preventive, proactive, and personalised biotechnology and healthcare aligns with the ageing research conducted at the Babraham Institute. The fellowship represented an avenue of personal and professional growth, challenging my previous assumptions and opening my eyes to the fascinating area of science commercialisation and technology transfer, while connecting with inspiring people from different walks of life.

I encourage you to check your blind spots too and look for the many opportunities around to augment your entrepreneurial skill sets and help serendipity to work its magic.


Notes Image credit: Newton Venture Fellowship Program