Like never before, scientists are looking for ideas to commercialize. Scientists and researchers have always been inventors and innovators to be sure, but the level of interest and effort devoted to achieving such ends seems to be intensifying. Perhaps it is the success of the US model, or the emergence of the biotech market — largely driven by small, university-originated start-ups — that has piqued the attention of scientists in other disciplines. The latter example is an interesting case in point. The small-scale and knowledge-driven basis of biotech start-ups offer a welcome respite, in terms of innovative and agile research efforts, from globalized, monolithic pharmaceutical companies.

The US example of well-funded start-ups and generous venture capitalists is, no doubt, viewed with some envy throughout the world. Enterprise competitions have also generated significant successes — for example the famous annual student MIT $50k Entrepreneurship Competition has generated over 60 companies, billions of dollars in capital investment, and 200 jobs over the course of its 12 year lifetime. Many other universities also run such events, such as Purdue’s annual Burton D. Morgan Entrepreneurial Competition with prize money totaling $85,000 ( or Bristol University’s competition offering a $33,000 prize and the opportunity to apply for $250,000 in seed capital ( Oxford University is the latest to follow suit with its Business Plan Competition offering a more modest reward of $10,000 ( While enterprise seems to be in the very fabric of MIT, other universities are working hard to integrate innovation into science studies in particular.

How to establish a start-up is one thing, but how do you have an idea in the first place? Some nice advice comes from designer Bruce Mao, “Drift. Allow yourself to wander aimlessly. Explore adjacencies. Lack judgement. Postpone criticism.” Once you have had the idea, how can you tell if it could be commercial? As a first port of call, the Internet can be useful. If nothing else, provides some entertaining gizmos that you never knew you needed. Visitors to the site can rate posted ideas, make comments, and add improvements. In a more serious vein, lists the latest patents and intellectual property, while match-makes between inventors and investors or developers. Regardless of the quality of an idea itself, timing is crucial. The best idea may flounder if the market isn’t ready, while the worst may have a brief spell in vogue before disappearing without a trace. According to ideas guru Rob Lawrence, creative director of IBM Innovation, every idea has a time, place, and purpose (note the order!). Hitting the jackpot when all three coincide is luck.

After the idea stage, raising capital becomes the main concern. Enterprise competitions, such as the ones mentioned above, are designed to give ideas an initial injection of cash. Universities now commonly have staff or centers devoted to innovation and technology transfer. Offering a sounding board for ideas, the centers also provide an essential insight into the realities of the commercial world. Tim Cook, who heads up Isis Innovation, thinks this is vital. Many academics, he finds, used to ‘no strings attached’ research funding are shocked to learn that venture capitalists not only want their initial investment back, but want more too!

If there’s one take home lesson from this new found focus on enterprise it is to have a go and learn from your mistakes.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(02)05401-9