Monday, 20 November 2017

White Rose Research Students pitch at FERA

Image result for fera yorkThis week, graduate students, who form part of the White Rose Doctoral Training Programme in Mechanistic Biology, sponsored by the BBSRC, took part in a Molecules to Market session at the FERA Research Institute just outside York. The format was essentially the same as usual, but the level of expectation of "the science" was higher than usual. Student teams comprised second year PhD students from York, Leeds and Sheffield, in teams of 5, who had been given a month to formulate a business idea in the area of Biotechnology. There were seven teams ranging from Helios: a synthetic biology solution to photo-voltaic cells, to Rescicler, whose mission is to recycle laboratory equipment in an environmentally friendly way with a bonus, that they will be helping relatively impoverished schools access low cost instruments to help the STEM agenda. 

As a member of the three person judging panel, accompanied by the Chair of the session, Dr Kevin Parker, we listened to the pitches, asked questions, and then had to pick a winner! Essentially we were looking for an innovative piece of Science combined with a competitive and feasible commercial proposal. I think I can speak for all of the judges, when I say that the presentations and the way in which the ideas were communicated were of a uniformly high standard. If there was one general comment, the presentation slides could in some cases, have been improved by clarity and conciseness in expressing the financial opportunity and the novelty of each proposal, but this can be easily overcome with a little practice. On the whole, there was very little to distinguish each proposal from a scientific perspective: the differences came through in the way each team articulated the commercial potential and the route to market. Of course this is the main objective, and the whole basis of the concept is to raise awareness of the challenges of commercialisation of Science.

The winners were Poweccentric, with a device aimed at reducing the long term problems associated with a lack of (the right form of) exercise in the over '60s. It wasn't so much the ingenuity of their idea, which was fine, but it was more a consequence of their well-researched and passionate presentation. The combination of rigorous science, market research and a timeliness of the invention, made the Poweccentric pitch and Q & A, the most impressive. The close second in the competition where the Fatberg, green elimination company, who had devised an engineered lipase to drive out the evil blockages that seem to be clogging up our sewers: a really excellent idea, which has got to be a a better long term plan, compared with building more sewers!

Thank you once again to the teams and the organisers for a very enjoyable and rewarding day in York: it really is encouraging to see students getting to grips with the applied aspects of their research, which in my view really enhances their perspective on Science and gives them all more food for thought, for the next stage in their careers.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Poster Session on Wednesday

The Council Meeting The countdown has begun to the final poster-pitches this Wednesday afternoon. We will be joined in the Council Room (shown left without the posters!) by two external assessors, so I thought I would give you some insight into what is expected on the day and their backgrounds. On the one hand, the Council Room is probably a little on the small side to accommodate everyone in the module, but at the same time, it does tend to produce a vibrant atmosphere, which I like. So, on balance, I would rather we squashed up for a few hours and kept the atmosphere lively. My advice is to bring a few bottles of water (although the weather seems to be turning cold again!). After you have hung your posters, the 4 assessors will start walking around and interrogating you and your colleagues. Dr. Alvey and I will be the internal assessors, and will moderate the external assessor's "marks". There will also be a student vote on the best looking poster (remember substance is critically important, but as a poster, it must also be engaging). Finally, there will be an assessors' vote on the best "pitch". Each posters will be marked either by an internal or an external assessor, and then moderated by the internal assessors. We will aim to announce the results of the student and assessor votes by around 3.30pm. 

There will be times when you may feel you are at a loose end, please use this time to "interrogate" your colleagues: this is what happens at both scientific and commercial meetings and us. The more you put in: the more you get out! 

Image result for dragon
The Dragon The external assessor this year is  Dr.  Doug Gjerde. Doug is the CEO of Phynexus Inc, a California based Biotech company, specialising in extraction-purification media, devices and robotic instrumentation, in support of drug discovery and Biotech labs and businesses. He has set up a number of businesses in the USA over the last 30 years, and was behind the IPO of Transgenomic Inc, which he co-founded. He set up Phynexus around 15 years ago. Doug is familiar with the nuts and bolts of the commercialisation of science, from start-up to flotation on the NASDAQ in New York, and has a very broad knowledge on top of his own specialisms (he has a PhD in analytical chemistry). He has been given a brief to first ask you to explain your idea and the business model, after which he  will ask questions that they feel will challenge you. Just as with any business pitch, there are no set questions: this is all about experiencing thinking on your feet! 

Good luck!

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Assessment criteria: Level 3 Molecules to Market

Addendum to the last post on this topic. Since this last post, several students have emailed to find out more about the marking scheme and assessment methods for this project module. The general assessment approach is the same in broad terms as would be applied to any laboratory based project, but as with the outreach projects there are some important differences. I shall summarise the similarities and differences here. The length of the final report, referred to as "The Business Plan" is the same as that for all Level 3 Projects. However, while there is some flexibility in respect of the organisation of the BP, it must contain the following elements.

1. Executive Summary

2. Background (to include a discussion of the science behind the idea, the market opportunity and competitor analysis, the financial requirements, revenues anticipated and the mechanism for funding the business as a real going concern. Remember, the objective is to make this a viable business, not just a virtual company!)

3. Financial plan (This should be sufficiently detailed to withstand scrutiny by a potential investor)

4. Marketing strategy (to include company name, logo, and provisional Internet presence)

5. Human Resources strategy (how you envisage the "size and shape" of the company, who does what, number of staff, levels, salaries etc.)

6. Miscellaneous Depending on the nature of the enterprise, you may which to present information regarding:proof of concept work, intellectual property strategy, location, premises, collaborators, partners etc.

7. References (all sources of information used in preparing the BP).

The BP will be assessed on the basis of content (including style, general English, organisation: all critical for success in business), critical insight (this is particularly important in all Level 3 work, as you know, and will apply to the depth of analysis of the science/technology and the market analysis: the financial planning is expected to be robust, but not sophisticated). 

There will be some discretion in respect of the final BP, depending on the number of students participating: this will be made clear at the outset. In principle, students should take ownership of specific sections of the document (identified by name) and collective responsibility for editing and approving the final version.

There are other elements of assessment in addition to the BP, these include business pitching, submission of an individual module diary and the preparation of a provisional (but functional) web site. These elements are discussed in the earlier post.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

New Level 3 M2M projects for MBB students

I am delighted to announce that there will be an opportunity for FCP201 students from MBB to sign up for a new project option starting in October 2017. Building on the platform of FCP201, there will be an opportunity to develop a viable business plan in the broad Biotech area as one of the level 3 project pathways. The project will typically involve 4-6 students working as a group to develop a robust business plan, with the support of academic and business mentors. The further possibility exists within this project, to seek external funding, to create your own intellectual property where appropriate and to spin out your own business. You will be guided and encouraged by your mentors, but you will be the ones who will be responsible for the successful commercialisation of your idea, should you choose to do so. The structure of the project and the assessment criteria are described below. It follows a similar pattern to FCP201, but each element of the business development project will require a greater level of depth and will be subject to more rigorous scrutiny.

Brainstorming. The first part of the project will involve the development of a number of ideas. Since the project forms a considerable part of your level 3 academic credits in MBB, it must be based on one or more of your taught modules. However, there will be some latitude given, in order to reconcile both scientific and commercial objectives. As with FCP201, you will draw on your knowledge of the course together with your own scientific and business awareness to develop a small number of business proposals. You will document (by minuting) your student-led brainstorming sessions, from which a 1 page summary of each idea will be used to select the most suitable proposal through discussion with the mentoring team.

Articles of Incorporation The roles and responsibilities of "board" members will be defined, and each member will be responsible for preparing their section of the initial business plan. It is our intention that the company should provide you with a real world business opportunity, the allocation of roles and responsibilities will therefore be critical. You will need a minimum of four key roles: strategic leadership (CEO), scientific and technical leadership (CSO), a financial lead (CFO) and a sales/marketing/communication person(s). Having established which area you wish to run with, you will provide the mentoring team with a draft business plan. It is important to note that business plans should never be "set in stone". The first draft is likely to be updated, expanded, contracted etc as the project develops and you begin to incorporate "intelligence" from your competitor analysis.

Scoping the business When you have satisfied yourselves that your plan is sound in theory, you will need to test it out against the competition and the market (in some preliminary way). You may have settled on a software idea, or a new approach to reducing spread of infectious diseases. You may wish to produce a hair restorer or alternatively a hair remover! Whatever your idea, you will need to survey your potential customers (whoever they may be). It may be that your idea is sound, but by discussing it with a group of "experts", you may find some fundamental flaws, that you hadn't anticipated (it does happen!).

Pitching the Business You will need to persuade someone that your idea is interesting, attractive and most of all, a way to make someone more money than they already have! This is the point where level 3 and 2 differ. The opportunity to pitch to a "live" group will be an option if you and the mentoring team feel that this is a viable opportunity. You will need to think very carefully about commitment, personal investment of time at least and ways in which you might obtain seed funding in order to persuade any potential investors of your idea.

Full business plan All businesses are based on a set of ideas, an assessment of the opportunity in terms of the market and the prospects for positive revenue growth at the earliest opportunity. As anyone in business will tell you, business plans are "working documents" (or "live documents"). However, this doesn't mean that they lack rigour. Quite the opposite! A business plan should be robust and thorough, but should also incorporate room for adaptation and modification, should the environment change (Darwinian principles apply!). You will be given resources, advice and examples of best practice in preparing a business plan, and we will try and find an appropriate match with an existing company in order to inform your planning. Each member of the team will make an identifiable contribution to the final business plan.

Proof of concept If your idea would benefit from experimental data, perhaps to produce information to persuade investors, or possibly just to satisfy yourselves that the idea is robust, you may wish to carry out a strategic set of experiments. This is entirely possible and would be for you to  decide. Unlike other student lab work, you will be expected to cost the work and justify the expense. There will be a limited, small budget: if you need further support, you will have to fund-raise yourselves. You will also have access to a 3D printer if design of components or "printing" demonstration items would add value. (You may be interested in this post describing the value of 3D printing).

Competitor analysis Your idea may or may not infringe somebody else's  patent, or you may need a license for access to a piece of IP that's essential for your idea to be deliverable. Alternatively you may have a large corporate operating in the same commercial space, who are unlikely to take your arrival on the scene lying down! You will therefore need to carry out a full analysis of the market for your product and decide on your business strategy. Will your idea form part of an IP portfolio, which will require one type of fund raising strategy and a rigorous . Alternatively, you may want to proceed by keeping your idea an "in-house secret", which has been Coca Cola's (very successful) strategy 

Appraisal/staff review/performance management Is everyone pulling their weight in the team? How do you judge whether you are working hard enough? Are you prioritizing the right things? All organisations recruit staff on some form of probationary terms. You may have been recruited to carry out experimental work in a specialised area that is critical for the development of a new drug. Alternatively you may have been recruited for your coding skills, or your team leadership potential. These are just a few examples and all could be "mission critical". So how do employers, and increasingly your colleagues, make sure that the "business" remains on track and that you are performing to expectations. This usually takes some form of "carrot and stick" scenario. There are of course divided views on how much carrot and how much stick is used, and you don't need me to tell you this; you can all read the News! The 360 degree idea is something that will be incorporated into "project surveillance". Each member of the team will be assessed at the start, in the middle and after the preparation of the business plan. There will be a simple self assessment form that you will complete every two weeks, and then there will be two group sessions led by the mentor team in order to gauge how each member of the team is contributing to the project. The first session will be carried out after the first four weeks and the final one after eight weeks. There will also be some individual assignments" throughout the project, including contributions to the business plan and production of an individual diary as well as an individual case study of a company of your choice.

Executive Summary Level 3 Molecules to Market offers a limited number of MBB students the opportunity to gain first hand experience of creating a "spin out" business in the Biotech sector. In keeping with the overall aims of level 3 lecture and project modules there will be an expectation of commitment in terms of time and effort: students will be assessed on the basis of both individual pieces of work as well as that of the team as a whole. Formal instructions will be made available via MOLE, and all assessed work will be submitted via this route. In addition to academic supervision, you will benefit from the expertise and resources available at the University of Sheffield Enterprise zone and from external business mentors. Finally, the opportunity exists for you to develop your ideas  into a real business, should you choose to do so. I look forward to getting started!