Sowing the Seeds of Innovation
Entrepreneurship is a skill, and we need to start teaching it
The UK government’s Industrial Strategy sets out ambitious targets to “boost productivity and earning power” across the nation and position the UK as a center of innovation. Contribution to global challenges requires innovative minds and there is nowhere better to drive bottom-up initiatives than the university campus; however, innovation and entrepreneurship have been somewhat neglected in British universities. As educators, we have an important part to play in producing the entrepreneurs Britain will need to adapt and thrive in a changing global economy.
Multi-national organizations like Google, Apple, and Microsoft believe that open, collaborative styles of working are particularly conducive to productivity and innovation – so much so that they are rebranding their R&D hubs as “campuses.” Universities, by their very nature, operate on the frontiers of current knowledge, and provide a supportive, collegiate environment to nurture grand ideas.
Seizing opportunities, learning from mistakes, and seeking funding are as much a part of the job description of an academic as they are that of a dynamic entrepreneur, and here at King’s College we’re developing new teaching and research programmes to develop an entrepreneurial mindset in students. Our vision is that by 2029 everyone will have the opportunity to make entrepreneurship a part of their DNA. It’s incredibly ambitious for such a large institution, but we consider it absolutely necessary to ensure the ongoing success of the university - and, ultimately, the nation.
King’s College is home to a wide-ranging support network: acceleration programmes, maker spaces with university-wide remits, workshops, co-working spaces, mentorship programmes, and investor networks. Coupled with our central London location, we are in the best position to offer world-class opportunities for our students.
My own contribution to our mission is creating a lecture series – “Innovation & Entrepreneurship” – delivered to undergraduate chemistry students in their final year, developed first at Imperial and now at King’s. The course aims to teach a wide range of entrepreneurial skills and concepts, such as ideation, intellectual property, funding landscapes, and proposal pitching. It’s hard to get everything across in one course, so instead we provide the basics before delving deeper through discussion. A series of interactive lectures and guest seminars from investors, entrepreneurs, start-ups, academics, and CEOs is designed to inspire and motivate students to consider starting their own ventures. Students also acquire and build upon their existing skills to help them in their future endeavors – be they in industry, business, or academia.
Over the years, I’ve focused our topics through the lens of chemistry. Students get to see the other side of the academics delivering their lectures; in today’s ecosystem, entrepreneurship is a given, rather than a rarity. That was not the case decades ago, when limited resources and a culture that frowned upon such activities acted as significant barriers to progress.
Our first guest lecture was delivered by Bruno Cotta – then Director of Enterprise at Imperial College. It was a watershed moment for many of our students, highlighting the seriousness with which student-driven entrepreneurship was being taken. Entrepreneurship is a multi-faceted concept – much more than simply starting a business, it’s about innovative ideas.
The course presents a chemistry-focused view of the market: physical chemists, synthetic chemists, chemical biologists, and experts in diagnostics and nanotechnology are invited to talk about their start-ups. Crucially, they reveal how they’ve overcome the challenge of conducting world-leading science alongside commercial ventures. It’s eye-opening for the students, who typically experience science through the narrow lens of academia.
We’ve been fortunate to have been graced by many memorable guests since the inception of the course. Here are just a few standout examples:
- Dominic Falcao, founding director of Deep Science Ventures (a London-based incubator supporting scientists building their own companies with a particular focus on global challenges) presented a lecture on: “What is a good idea?” Students were encouraged to think about their ideas as a set of hypotheses and set about devising careful tests to prove or disprove them.
- Phil Parsons shared his very personal journey, including many of the obstacles he faced at a much more challenging time to become an academic entrepreneur. Founder and Director of Cookson Chemicals (Tocris Cookson), he has gone on to found Pareon Chemicals, and won numerous awards during his career.
- Executive Director of the Commercialization Office at Imperial College London, Govind Pindoria’s lecture explored the machinations of those sitting on the other side of the table. He laid bare his experiences in helping to scale up science ventures and was unflinchingly honest about what investors are looking for – and what ultimately succeeds or fails.
Students are given 6 weeks to work in a team to develop a new idea from scratch and pitch to their entire year group. During this time, I mentor each team, from ideation, to fleshing out a business outline, and finally developing a pitch. Students are examined on their ability via a formal presentation, their response to a judging panel and audience questions, clarity of their proposal, and their defense of it under scrutiny. It’s a high-stakes assessment that must be passed. To enhance the learning experience, the judging panel – which is made up of real-world entrepreneurs – are reminded to “keep the gloves off.” They act as though they are working on a real-world example, providing direct feedback.
The university has been pleasantly surprised by the quality of ideas emerging from younger generations, and appreciate the value entrepreneurship adds to a student’s education. Seeing this ability grow organically in our students is incredibly encouraging, and I am certain it will make them more successful in the long term.
Two rather interesting examples have sprung from members of my own research group. While doing his PhD in single-cell proteomics, Stelios Chatzimichail founded BioNet, a project dedicated to developing a biodegradable polymer to replace the plastic netting currently used in the farming industry to bail hay. Similarly, Pashiini Supramaniam, who applies our microfluidic technology to better understand artificial cell synthesis, is part of the QuickCount team – an organization developing technology that can indicate the presence of bacterial infection in under 1 minute from a fingerpick of blood. Both are members of interdisciplinary teams – managing their own research projects (including budgets and grants) alongside ambitious and intensive PhDs. Having engaged in projects of their own, I can see first-hand how much more productive and engaged they are in their work. Plus, their CVs are incredibly competitive – reading more like that of junior faculty members than PhD students.
My own academic career has benefited hugely from my involvement in a technology spin-out, through which I’ve learnt how to deliver scientific innovation commercially and drive impact. I received no formal training – my knowledge was gained the hard way through experience – and I know first-hand how valuable the course is.
To students, my message is simple: you came to university to change the world – so get out there and do it! To institutes I say the following: recognize that you are sitting on enormous, often untapped potential – academics and their ideas are one of our most valuable assets. To make the most of it, you must encourage your faculty to embrace entrepreneurship. Together, students and academics can work together to the benefit of society as a whole.
Ali is a lecturer in Chemistry & Innovation in the Dept. Chemistry at King’s College London. He is an EPSRC-UKRI Innovation fellow and holds a CAMS (Community for Analytical Measurement Science) lectureship. He is a founder of anywhereHPLC Ltd. seeking to commercialise portable HPLC. He leads a research group in microfluidic engineering applied to the miniaturisation of LC, cellular bionics and single-cell analysis.