16 May 2023
by Sarah Morgan

Entrepreneurially minded

The growing number of university spin-out companies and entrepreneurial options on courses show the potential for academics to take their career in an unexpected direction. Sarah Morgan examines how to foster the entrepreneur within.

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Emily Clements is undertaking a PhD on the Neuroscience of Entrepreneurship at King’s College London, UK, and provides talks and workshops to scientists interested in transitioning to entrepreneurship. She recently spoke on the topic of the ‘Entrepreneurial Brain’ in a lecture to the Henry Royce Institute.

Speaking to Materials World, she poses two definitions of entrepreneurship to explain what she means by the ‘entrepreneurial brain’. 'There’s the first definition, which is occupational, is that you started a business. And then there is the second type, which is more of the entrepreneurial way of thinking.' She sees the latter as 'recognising opportunities, coming up with new ideas, working in that kind of uncertain territory where you bring in more change or something new'.

Robert Phillips, Senior Lecturer for the Alliance Manchester Business School at the University of Manchester, UK, adds, 'You can coach somebody to start a business, but you cannot teach somebody to be an entrepreneur.' 

Rich Adams, Business Engagement Manager at the University of Plymouth, UK, agrees with the concept of an entrepreneurial brain. He says, 'There are also knowledge intensive businesses. I think they have a different set of characteristics and those are the ones where I think, as a country, we should be throwing the kitchen sink at, because [they] are creating the jobs, the higher-paying jobs.'

Damon Bonser, from the British Design Fund, says, 'I think entrepreneurs do think differently from most of the population, and they probably have always thought differently and gone against the grain most of their lives. So, in that respect yes [there is an entrepreneurial brain]. However, this does not exclude more conventional entrepreneurs – who are less risk-takers and come at the entrepreneurial journey later in life via a corporate path.'

On the other hand, Simonetta Manfredi is more circumspect. She is Associate Dean for Research and Knowledge Exchange in the Business School at Oxford Brookes University, UK, and Professor of Equality and Diversity Management. As Principal Investigator on a research project entitled Women and Spinouts: A Case for Action, she reflects, 'I’m inclined to believe that it is more to do with the environment, the culture, the kind of policies and practices which are in place…especially in the area of the innovation ecosystem, which is so much still male dominated.'

Nurture versus nature
So, are you born with an entrepreneurial brain or can you develop it? Clements falls more on the nurture side of the debate. 'I think it’s a lot of our experiences and our environment that shape entrepreneurial thinking. I think one of the main things…is exposure. If you are exposed to people who do it, it is much more likely that you can learn how to do it yourself…I don’t think people are born entrepreneurs.'

She sees barriers – first exposure and understanding, second financial, and third is a 'mindset shift I think needs to happen'. She notes that entrepreneurs don’t see problems as road-blocks – they have the cognitive flexibility to work around it. 

On the topic of academics in STEM entering entrepreneurship, she says, 'I think the biggest mindset shift that has to happen is the ability to be okay with uncertainty and know that you can’t plan out absolutely everything.' Scientists are prone to methodical and rigorous planning.

Adams adds, 'The characteristics of an entrepreneur are people who tend not to have an aversion to risk, and so they are prepared to put themselves in positions that are uncomfortable financially at times or areas of uncertainty.' He thinks academics are well placed to be reflexive in terms of finding solutions.

Phillips sees the main barrier to academics becoming entrepreneurs as financial. He says with scientific ideas, 'It is going to take a long time, it is going to take a lot of money, and those are probably the biggest challenges. Obviously, there are the skills that need to be developed as well…but there is support within the university to be able to help with those things.

'In fact, I think that there’s more support in universities in the UK than there is in a lot of other places.' This includes support for academic staff but also entrepreneurship modules on university courses.

He observes, it is about 'getting [those in academia] to think about how they can apply their knowledge [to the commercial world]'. He notes many academics in STEM will go into industry, and spot the opportunities for entrepreneurship later in their careers.

Skills for business
Adams points out, 'If you’re entering into a small or medium sized enterprise, you need to be able to have a broad portfolio of skills that allows you to undertake different activities within a small team'.

'Determination, common sense, general understanding of business models', as well as passion for the sector, are important, says Bonser.

Anne Diack, a Design Council Expert, also points to soft skills. 'Excellent communication and presentation skills, clarity of thinking, resilience, the ability to see another person’s idea, flexibility in their thinking, the ability to be strategic and plan for problems…persistence, confidence, etc.' In addition to, 'understanding of copyright, intellectual property and patents, understanding how to set up a company, and possible sources of financial and other support'.

Spinning out
Adams is positive about the role universities can play, 'I think universities can provide businesses with independent, objective and value-free knowledge that accelerates their products to market exponentially quicker than they would have been otherwise able to do so.'

But he is forthright in saying entrepreneurship is under-promoted. 'I think it is hugely underrepresented and underrated as an option for students and as a student recruitment tool for universities.

'I think spin-outs from universities are particularly talked about an awful lot, but they are fairly rare. The primary goal of universities is to deliver teaching and then high-quality research. So commercial spin-outs are very much a third or fourth tier in terms of the thinking of universities. But when they do happen, I think they are incredibly important for any particular sector, because they are normally very disruptive and set a new tone 
and direction for any particular sector.'

For him a successful spin-out company is one that, 'continues trading on a commercial basis…And what makes them successful is that primary piece of research is around real-world problems'.

Bonser continues, 'Lots of the colleges and universities have phenomenal incubators.' He points to the fact a spin-out company should have, 'strong IP, a good team, sensible valuation and well-balanced [capitalisation table]'. He thinks they are, 'very often overpriced and the cap tables can be troublesome'. 

Women in entrepreneurship
Adams, however, sees social barriers. This brings us onto the specific question of gender divide.

The 2019 Rose Review pointed out that £250bln could be added to the UK economy by developing the skills of female entrepreneurs. The 2022 progress report shows that young female entrepreneurs have established more female-led firms than any other age group, but there is variation based on diversity and regions.

Manfredi, whose work focuses specifically on this issue, attests of women in entrepreneurship, 'There are some excellent cases out there and we see them more and more.'

However, she sees many barriers. 'I think mainly cultural and environmental barriers, especially depending on what type of science they are in – there are some sciences where there are more women, but some disciplines have seemed very male-dominated.'

She continues, 'We did some focus groups with early-career researchers – men and women…One of the things that came up is the potential barriers. And actually not just for women, but men, thinking more and more, how do I reconcile, for example, an entrepreneurial career with having a family, having children?

'Another barrier is how some of the qualities that are associated with entrepreneurship seem to be very masculine-type of qualities...So there is a lot of stereotyping in the language about entrepreneurship – sometimes the language can be quite aggressive, which might not resonate with everybody, and that is not just women but for men as well.'

She sees structural bias as significant. 'There are lots of structural barriers' in terms of policies and practices. The difficulty accessing investment is a good example. 'The age compounded with gender makes it even more difficult, especially with investors, because it is a fact that women have less access to investments to develop and grow their businesses.'

She does not feel the psychological barriers are necessarily in the women’s mind, 'but if you are operating in an environment where you are surrounded by male role models,...this is a driving factor in the outcome'.

Bonser notes the, 'Majority of entrepreneurs and investors are unfortunately male, however, this is changing, but slowly.'

Diack asserts, 'Female students face more challenges than their male counterparts. There are fewer female entrepreneur role models, mentors to learn from, and there is gender bias in the availability of funding for starting up spin-out companies or just developing ideas.'

Manfredi says, 'I don’t think women need necessarily extra help. I think the focus needs to be on challenging the structural barriers…even basic things like making sure that they [promote] case studies [of] men and women who are successful in this area, not just men who have been successful.'

She believes it is important to encourage women to see that entrepreneurship can lead to a second career, it is sustainable and can combine with other interests in their life.

In terms of action on this front, Manfredi puts the onus on institutions, saying, 'They need to acknowledge that there are structural barriers and do something about it'.

Diack agrees, 'Resolving this is not just a matter for female students themselves in being resourceful and persistent in trying to get funding – it is for institutions themselves to change. More needs to be done to encourage female students in the STEM subjects, in providing exposure and access to male-dominated businesses, networking opportunities, board experience and brokering funding opportunities specifically for female students.

'The financial sector has been developing a number of programmes for female students and entrepreneurship, and universities could use some of these initiatives as a stimulus in developing their spin-outs. 

'Central government may have a role to play in highlighting good practice and making it easier for institutions to learn from others and also from different sectors.'

Taking the plunge
All those who I spoke to were supportive of STEM academics making the transition into entrepreneurship.

Clements says it is important to validate the idea and 'making sure that it is actually needed by whoever your target audience is as soon as possible…you need to get out there and start doing that customer market research as soon as possible'.

She adds, 'I definitely recommend focusing on what they are passionate about [wanting] to change…the most successful entrepreneurs that I see…are people who were so passionate about the area or problem that they were trying to solve.'

Manfredi also says, 'Do it, but also be prepared that things might not work.' She encourages people to see all experiences in the entrepreneurship journey as a learning experience, and also sees resilience as important.

Bonser says to realise your ideas, 'Stay focused, understand and keep an eye on your market and competitors, stay positive, be persistent'.

Phillips concludes, 'There’s never been a better chance to test your ideas.'