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The Entrepreneur and the Environment

Mar 2009
Dr. Christine Connolly, UK Correspondent,

In the October/November issue of EuroPhotonics, we met four researchers-turned-entrepreneurs and explored the role that the environment played in fulfilling their goals.

This time, we examine that environment and the elements that shape it. Among the major players are universities, research institutes and science parks, and training courses and consultancies that act as catalysts. But there is also a third element. Beyond the control of universities, consultants or researchers themselves looms the national economic climate.

Differing skill sets

It takes two sets of skills to equip a photonics technologist for business: the “hard” skills, which are directly teachable, such as project management and company law, and the difficult-to-define “soft” skills, such as business nous, confidence and realism. So one of the paths to success is to introduce researchers to entrepreneurs, especially to those who recently have created spin-offs, so that the neophytes can learn from their peers.

Kieran Flynn, head of business development at Tyndall National Institute in Cork, Ireland, told me that, since 2001, the Irish government has channelled money into research. And Dr. John D. Lambkin of Firecomms Ltd., also in Cork, acknowledged the inspiring nature of that national environment.

“Since about 2006, the government has started to look for results,” Flynn said, “and has put technology transfer officers into universities and research institutions. They deal with the protection of intellectual property and the transfer of licences.”

Imperial College London founded its technology transfer office more than 20 years ago. The office not only helps researchers draw up business plans but also has a network of contacts from which it can attract the people who can take the businesses forward.

Cambridge Enterprise, the commercialization team at the University of Cambridge, works closely with researchers to investigate the potential market and licensing of the intellectual property, and it provides support, advice and mentoring through all the stages of building a new business.

Some universities set up their own training courses – or direct students to specific existing ones. For example, local business colleges or university schools of business may provide courses on company law and finance. The Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship at the University of Strathclyde offers courses to its undergraduates and postgraduates as well as professional qualifications such as an MBA. Its elective courses for undergraduates include entrepreneurial finance, human capital, and venture management strategy and growth.

Praxis Courses Ltd. of Cambridge offers courses for technology transfer professionals working in universities, in research institutions and in industry. Its courses include advanced licensing skills and creating spinouts.

The melting pot

To foster the soft skills, institutions often bring together researchers and entrepreneurs, investors and developers in a structured or sometimes informal way. The Photonex exhibition in October in Coventry featured an inaugural Technology Investment Forum, comprising a series of all-day innovation and investment business seminars. Alex Clarke, Aston Science Park’s manager of Photonics Cluster (UK) introduced the event and likened the spin-off company to a small boat tossing in the storm of financial uncertainty.

Photonics Cluster (UK) held a business growth event at Aston Science Park to support entrepreneurs. Guest speakers were, left to right: Steve Walker, CEO of Aston Reinvestment Trust; Chris Labrey, sales director at ECS United Kingdom plc; Matthew Hidderley, marketing and sales manager of Aston Science Park; Pat Geraghty, Central England Business Angels; Dennis Camilleri, managing partner of IVO Associates; and Barry Stocks, BTG International Ltd. tax director of VAT and Indirect Tax Services.

Clarke told me that, during the mid-1990s, a national business forum brought together students and business people to air the new technologies and help commercialization. It coached the students on how to present their ideas. At its height, there were about 150 simultaneous tabletop presentations from students and small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and some big venture funding agencies in attendance.

Tyndall brings in external entrepreneurs to talk to its research students on an informal and sporadic ad hoc basis. Firecomms’ Lambkin and Dr. Carl Jackson, chief technology officer of SensL International in Cork, are former Tyndall researchers who made the transition, and current students can readily identify with them when the men come in to give talks. Tyndall is looking to formalize this as a taught element of its doctoral programme.

Incubation and consultation

John Cronin is the new CEO of Aston Science Park. A natural entrepreneur, he has nurtured many new companies and was formerly at British Telecommunications Group plc’s corporate incubator, Brightstar.

John Cronin, CEO of Aston Science Park, is shown at the inaugural Technology Investment Forum.

He said that the cluster concept, where groups of companies in a similar market sector collaborate to provide “virtual” resources for the incubator, enables individual new companies to access financial and legal expertise without having to own those resources. This provides a cost-effective way to share resources until they can grow to a position where they can own them outright.

Aston Science Park provides incubator accommodations for start-ups, currently housing more than 100 companies with a total of more than 1400 employees.

The Welsh Opto-Electronics Forum is a consortium of Welsh companies, university research groups, users and support organizations aiming to stimulate growth and competitiveness. The Technium OpTIC business incubation centre at St. Asaph is dedicated to photonics-based start-up companies only.

The Technium OpTIC business incubation centre in Wales provides a strong support environment for photonics-based start-up companies.

New businesses use production-scale development and testing facilities that often are too expensive to buy or access. Each company has a business mentor to help its development and receives advice on sales and marketing and assistance with intellectual property protection.

“Over a third of all the UK’s photonics companies are within 40 miles of OpTIC,” said John Oliver, incubation director at OpTIC. “The high success rate – of over 90 per cent – reflects the strong support environment that entrepreneurs in photonics experience here.”

The Welsh Assembly Government funds innovation and technology counsellors with industrial expertise and patents knowledge who visit small businesses to diagnose their needs and point them in the right direction. They also supply information about grants and funding.

The Photonics Academy at OpTIC delivers technical short courses in optoelectronics, collaborating with SPIE to include visiting lecturers with specific areas of expertise.

One-on-one help

Dennis Camilleri, managing partner of IVO Associates in St. Ives, Cambridgeshire, UK, has been a consultant for the past 10 years, helping photonics-based companies spin out. He works closely with the researcher on a one-to-one basis, looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the inventor and identifying what else is needed.

“Few inventors have enough experience of project management, deadlines, resource finding and business planning,” he said. “Few know enough about the commercial world to have a realistic idea of the marketability of their invention and how to go about selling it through channels.”

Having diagnosed the needs, Camilleri finds other people from among his own or the inventor’s networks. When the company has grown, standard job functions emerge, and staff then can be found through recruitment agencies. The consultant also helps find funding using his contacts with business angels and private investors, and his knowledge of regional grants.

Sentec is a Cambridge-based company that provides technology and product development skills. Technologies invented at Sentec have been licensed or used to create spin-out companies, depending on the technology and the business opportunity in each case. Rapid Biosensor Systems Ltd., also of Cambridge, one of its spin-offs, has developed a portable breathalyser-type device using photonics-based techniques to detect infectious diseases.

An innovative breathalyser and laser fluorescence optical reader tests the cough sample in the tube for tuberculosis, providing a result for screening purposes in two minutes. Courtesy of Rapid Biosensor Systems Ltd.

In this difficult time of global recession, business funding is hard to come by. So it is heartening that the infrastructure already set up by governments, universities and research institutions offers help in commercializing innovative photonics technologies and that entrepreneurs continue to pass on their skills by mentoring newcomers.

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The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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