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Thing 6: The Entrepreneurial Researcher

Why enterprise skills are essential in the research realm – and beyond

Kelly Jordan, Senior Enterprise Officer, Swansea University

Universities are breeding grounds for innovation: I have learnt this while working as the Senior Enterprise Officer at Swansea University for the last 5 years. I often find myself in awe when meeting researchers, discussing their research, or listening to them present their project during the annual Three Minute Thesis competition. Many of them are inventors, creators, innovators and change makers, but do not associate themselves with the language of entrepreneurialism.

Nowadays, the world is asking for entrepreneurial researchers: researchers who can translate their findings into business opportunities and are able to communicate with industry. This requires the researcher to develop additional entrepreneurial skills beyond the research methods expertise needed for conducting the study. But entrepreneurial skills are not just for those who look to commercialise on their research; developing and embedding such skills will lead to a more resilient and adaptive researcher, able to demonstrate how research has public or commercial value, and the positive impact on the society we all live in.

What does it mean to be entrepreneurial?

There are many attributes, competencies and behaviours which have been identified as key components of the entrepreneurial mindset but which also crossover with many attributes of a successful researcher. Maybe you are already an entrepreneurial researcher without realising, so are not using that sought-after title?

We all know that researchers are curious, with the need to understand the reason how something works in the way it does, determined to find answers, question the why and challenge the norm. They are also resilient, able to prove a point with evidence collected and keen to shout a solution from the rooftops, with the ability to continue and adapt in the face of setbacks. These are attributes that are often associated with the entrepreneurial mindset.

Throughout the course of conducting your research you will have developed and demonstrated a wide range of entrepreneurial competencies. You identify problems that others may have overlooked, and you use your creative mind to come up with and investigate a variety of solutions to address these problems. At the same time, you have to balance different opportunities and possible routes for research with limited time and resources, sometimes taking calculated risks. Researchers are constantly having to pitch and prove themselves, whether to other researchers, funders, stakeholders, investors or the public, and this often requires gaining commercial awareness and using business terminology alongside sharing research-specific information. You may be seeking investment, or needing to demonstrate the impact of your research and current or future return on investment. Applying for research funding has a lot in common with pitching for business investment, whether you have a product that you are developing or your mind and knowledge itself is the product. Research and enterprise both rely on personal and professional networks, whether for investment and funding or collaboration.

Like entrepreneurs, researchers can sometimes fall into the trap of having too-narrow a focus, getting lost in their own ideas. This is why taking a step back from time to time to look at the “bigger picture” can be so important, keeping up to date with what’s going on in the industry and the external environment which may impact their area.

closeup photo of a classic Startrek communicator device
Good communications are always key, Jim (Photo by Stefan Cosma on Unsplash)

With all this in mind, it’s clear to see that while not all researchers have a desire to commercialise on their research or set up a business, developing and enhancing entrepreneurial skills can play a central role in the success of a research project.

Over the past 3 years, Swansea’s enterprise team has collaborated with the postgraduate research office to provide a range of support for early career researchers to identify the commercial value and viability of their research. This includes running masterclasses in pitching, commercialization, intellectual property and ‘Bench to Market’ courses, as well as providing pots of seed corn funding and accelerator programmes to support researchers’ enterprise journey. We have created entrepreneurs, freelancers, and founders – who also happen to be postgraduate researchers. These include current Psychology PGR, Lowri Wilkie of Lowri Wilkie Wellness; Laura Roklicer of Lucid Story and Edward Duckworth of Metrodx.

We find that the most value is found in sharing the stories of those who have gone and done it themselves. Our biannual ‘Not all roads lead to academia’ panel allows researchers to hear from those who have created start-ups, spin outs and spin-ins or have commercialised on their research. We’ve heard stories of innovative medical advances from Dr Jonathan Widdowson, founder of Procoll LTD; learned about new medical devices from inventor Dr Luke Burke, founder of Corryn BioTechnologies; heard about the business journey of social entrepreneur Dr Ben Reynolds, founder of Urban Foundry; and how writer Dr Kate Murray has used her passion for history to create learning resources founding her brand Tudor Colours. The biggest piece of advice they give to our researchers is not to overthink starting up a business and to give it a go.

black and white photo of modern dance. Four female figures in synchronised movement, standing on one leg and bending forward, arms outstretched to the front.
Give it a go, and bring your own style to whatever you do! (Photo by ketan rajput on Unsplash)

If you feel inspired after reading this blog, there are three tasks below to help you think more about the links between your research and being an entrepreneur.

Task 1: Assessing your entrepreneurial Mindset

Entrecomp is a renowned EU framework in which encompasses 15 competencies which make up an entrepreneurial mindset.

The diagram of the Entrecomp, the European Entrepreneurship Competence Framework.
The European Entrepreneurship Competence Framework (EntreComp)

Using this framework and this guidance from the University of Exeter, rate abilities in each area between 1 -10 (1 being low and (10 being high).

Be honest and fair with yourself! We are often over-critical and often our perceptions of ourselves are not an accurate reflection of our abilities. You could also ask others who know you: a friend, colleague, supervisor or family member.

Task 2: Turning your research into a business

“Where would I even start?” is the most asked question when it comes to starting a business. Mapping out your idea and getting it out of your head and on to paper will allow you to articulate and explain it better to stakeholders.

Using the Business Model Canvas below, start drafting some ideas as to how you could commercialise on your research in some way. Don’t worry if you can’t fill in all the sections – just see what ideas you can come up with.

The business model canvas developed by The sections on the canvas include key partners, key activities, key resources, value propositions, customer relationships, channels, and customer segments.
Business Model Canvas (By Business Model Alchemist and pharma industry)

Task Three: Communicating your Idea

Now you have your idea mapped out on the Business Model Canvas, try putting together a 60 second elevator pitch for your business idea. The videos below will help you construct your pitch and give advice on how to present it.

Top tip: remember why / what you are pitching, and to whom (think of your audience and the language you use). Good luck!

If you’re feeling brave, you could try sharing your ideas or your pitch with your Pod!

 Four people in business attire around a table, looking over a shared set of notes.
Surround yourself with a team you can rely on. And make sure you know everyone’s coffee preferences (Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash).

Visit the web page of Kelley's team at Swansea University, or email the team to find out more about entrepreneurship and research.

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09 jun
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Started my entrepreneurial Journey with my PhD interests..

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