Helping university research count

It is always a pleasure when you have the opportunity to go out and share some of the experiences and learnings, you have had, to an audience who need the insights in order to improve their odds of turning ideas into successful startups.

I had such an opportunity the other day, when I visited the Panum Institute at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at University of Copenhagen to talk about how to de-risk your business idea to a group of 60 Nordic researchers and ph.d.-students.

I thoroughly enjoy hanging out with researchers. One of the reasons is that I am deeply fascinated by what they do, how they work and how brilliant they are at coming up with novel discoveries. Part of my fascination is probably also that I know that I will never be in their league, and what is beyond reach somehow fascinates me.

But then there are – luckily – other things I think I am quite knowledgable about. One of those crucial areas is how to bridge the gap from the lab to the market, i.e. how to bring great research to life in the form of products and services that meet a real demand and can thus form the basis for a great business.

Getting in front of researchers to share that knowledge is key, I believe, because there is so much potential in ensuring that top class research gets a real life after the lab.

Today a lot of great research ends up in big corporations, and as such that is fine, because it ensures that the technology gets out there and gets used. But you have to ask yourself, what could happen if more of that research became spinouts in their own right creating new opportunities, new jobs and contributing to economic growth in society? That, to me, is the really exciting part.

For this to happen researchers need help. And a lot of it. When I meet young spinouts as part of the Danish Open Entrepreneurship programme, the spinouts fall into a couple of different buckets.

There are those that are really specialized, deeply techie and so niche, you just know it’s never going to be a company in itself but will most likely be acquired by some bigger corporate as a tech/IP acquisition.

And then there are those, where you immediately get a sense of how it could become a company in its own right with a product speaking clearly to a significant future customer base and with that the opportunity to actually create an impact and solving a problem.

Those are the interesting ones to me. And thus this is where I start to look deeper into the team. And what I see here is most often:

Deeply brilliant and experienced researchers with a big wish to see their research reach the market but with very little realistic idea about how to actually make that happen. Simply because they have never done it before, it’s not what they feel, they should be spending their time on, and – basically – it’s not what they should spend their time on.

This actually produces an interesting paradox. Because I would argue that when we talk about de-risking an idea for a startup, the process and structure you apply to that is actually very akin to the process you use, when you do research: You define a hypothesis, you test it using experiments, and you capture your learnings. And then you repeat, repeat and repeat until you have – hopefully – reached the intended outcome.

So you would argue that of all people, researchers are actually very well equipped to do de-risking for their own startups. Yet, a lot of the researchers struggle with this process. The reasons may wary, but I believe it has a lot to do with the fear of getting a ‘No’; the fear that what you have worked so hard on and been so committed to, will not get the anticipated reaction when you go outside the lab.

For the very same reason this is exactly where its great to get help from someone, who is not only more experienced about doing market research and de-risking but who is also not so personally attached to the research and technology in question. By admitting your own limitations and partnering up with someone to drive the external facing side of the emerging spinout, you may actually get very far with very little.

Why is that? Because the researcher already understands the mechanisms in de-risking, and you thus don’t have to spend time talking through the process and explain the mechanics. You can focus on getting the most critical hypothesis defined, design the experiments and capture the learnings. It can actually become quite an efficient process, and you could argue that only a little more than sheer mentoring for the researcher(s) could get you a long way.

However, mentoring is not enough. An equal commercial partner is needed for the researcher to increase the chances of ultimate startup success. And while getting help on the market de-risking in itself is a huge plus, the right people also bring a few other benefits that are equally important to the chances of success:

First of all, researchers need someone outside their research circle to help determine, when research and technology is ‘good enough’ to start testing. I seldom meet researchers who have a pragmatic view on this – the tendency is always to stay a bit longer in the lab, run yet another experiment, optimize the technology even further etc. In a worst case scenario what that essentially means is you can stay in the lab forever and never get the technology out to use.

Second – and a bit connected to the point above – researchers need someone to help them establish and secure a sense of urgency. While this is not the same thing as wanting to rush things through, it is about helping researchers figuring out how to get to market as quick as possible in order to both gather feedback and learnings from the market but also show investors that the case is on track to be viable.

Of course there are limitations as to what you can launch early, if you fx operate within a regulated industry, but the point is that there are always things you can do to start putting the spinout on the map, and researchers generally need help doing that.

Finally, a partner can help researchers deal with the very real issue that the envisioned outcome is by no means the same as the journey to get there. Too many researchers have the notion that the complex part of turning their research into a product that can be marketed is the actual research.

In fact, it often turns out that getting the product to market and commercializing it is every bit as complex, rocky and bumpy a journey as the research. Partners with experience in taking things to market know this because they have the battle scars themselves to prove it. Researchers don’t – by and large – have this and would thus be well advised to add this experience and expertise to their team early on. If for nothing else then at least for sparring them the pain of experiencing these hardships themselves. And potentially see their startup become an unnecessary casualty in the process.

So in summary, there is a lot of things, ‘business people’ can do to help researchers realize the full potential of their research. The right commercial people are just as important and valuable as materials needed in the lab to perform the actual research. They are each others yin and yang, and together they can achieve the outcome great researchers with a passion for affecting change have:

Making the research count where it’s needed.

(Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash)