Written on behalf of Researchers 14 by Dr Elizabeth Adams (University of Glasgow) and Karina Prasad (University of Cambridge).
The word entrepreneurship often conjures up images of popular TV shows like Dragon’s Den or The Apprentice, not typically something that a highly specialised postdoctoral researcher would be likely to identify with. However, an academic career path is not the only choice for researchers (or even, for many, the logical one). An entrepreneurial career approach can offer a rewarding, creative and exciting opportunity, embodying many of the benefits people already value in academic careers, such as autonomy, flexibility and creativity. Additionally, there is also a wide range of skills that can be added to our repertoires from an understanding of the entrepreneurial mindset: team management, finance, and planning, to name a few. If we want to really make progress with equipping researchers to take advantage of this way of thinking, then we need to change the way it is thought about by universities, those delivering training, and by researchers themselves.
Rather than offering ‘entrepreneurship’ training to the small numbers of researchers who are already alert to commercialisation opportunities and can see the immediate benefits to their situation, we (at Glasgow) are finding a much broader approach is required. Researchers are often more attracted to understanding how they can apply their skills, enthusiasm and experience to their research and how they can make a ‘difference’ to society, than they are to developing a ‘business focus’. As developers, we can get research staff interested by encouraging them to consider how a more entrepreneurial mindset can help them achieve the goals they have already set for themselves e.g. by ensuring that they are open to spotting opportunities for knowledge exchange or translational benefit and that they have the capacity to act on these with confidence, whether that’s in relation to academic collaboration, commercial opportunity, policy intervention, or in relation to other means of bringing their research out into the wider world to have an impact.
We must remember to demonstrate to research staff that the value of an entrepreneurial mindset is recognised in both academic careers and larger organisations every bit as much as in the start-up culture. For example, the Postdocs to Innovators collaboration (p2i) sets out to inspire and develop the entrepreneurial capacity of postdoctoral researchers, connecting them with communities of likeminded individuals in order to grow their ideas. This partnership is led by the University of Cambridge, with several other European HEIs and has attracted the interest of several corporate partners who see the value in promoting entrepreneurial thinking in all sizes of organisations. Such thinking is also now required to succeed with the recently announced UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship Scheme which aims to ‘develop, retain, attract and sustain research and innovation talent in the UK’.
Let’s also remind them that embarking on an entrepreneurial journey could mean access to a wider range of mentors (e.g. in industrial and business networks) and opportunities to undertake placements or consultancy with different sectors, not only at other academic institutions but also in developing countries where knowledge exchange can lead to innovation and capacity building.
Supporting and recognising entrepreneurial researchers
A change of mindset is also needed in the delivery of enterprise and entrepreneurship support within universities. Many universities have well-developed support for student start-ups, and also for commercialisation of research ideas. However, research staff endeavours often fall midway between these programmes, involving grey areas around fixed-term contracts, consultancy and ownership of IP, all of which can make already-busy commercialisation offices nervous about investing their time and support in this group. There is a need to demonstrate (and collect better data on) the value of researchers moving into more entrepreneurial pathways and this is something the Postdocs2innovators Scheme is focused on addressing. While entrepreneurially-minded researchers are within the University environment, it is likely that they contribute to the entrepreneurial ecosystem and ‘buzz’, which improves things for all fledgling entrepreneurs. On moving outside of the university, these researchers will become future knowledge exchange partners. If we fail to support them with the right development, we will miss a vital opportunity to translate significant research investment in talent and expertise into a positive impact on society.
Entrepreneurial support for ECRs should also be aware of gender issues. Are more men signing up to these programmes than women and, if so, why is that? Could identification with role models play? Could the language used to advertise these courses feel alien? A lack of interest from some (not all) senior Principal Investigators might assume certain groups won’t be interested in pursuing commercial opportunities who don’t ‘fit’ their preconception of what an ‘entrepreneur’ looks like (ambitious, ‘hungry’, risk-taking…) and therefore are less likely to put them forward for opportunities. In designing programmes, we should be careful of both participant and speaker gender balance. This includes digging deeper, for example, avoiding scenarios where the speaker line-up appears to be 50/50 but a closer look shows that the women are all in commercialisation support roles and the entrepreneurs are all white males.
Ingenious Women is an example of a programme funded by the Scottish Government to address the issue of fewer female founders. This women-only programme takes place over three residential weekends, looking at issues around confidence, control, and cash. The programme’s success is due to its unique targeted approach which includes, for example, carefully chosen language and case studies, a women-only environment provision of childcare.
The development of inclusive provision which engages non-traditional entrepreneurs and demonstrates the utility of the entrepreneurial skillset to all researchers is highly recommended.