This is the first entry in a series of three interviews, aimed at exploring the function of initiatives and organizations in the entrepreneurial ecosystem surrounding The University of Manchester. In this opportunity we present to you an interview conducted with the Director of the Innovation Optimiser at UMIP (University of Manchester Intellectual Property), Mr. Tony Walker.
GP: What is the role of the Innovation Optimiser in the Manchester entrepreneurship ecosystem?
TW: UMIP’s main focus is to commercialise the research results of The University of Manchester, usually this involves an element of Intellectual Property. However, we are increasingly doing more to support start-up businesses that are not necessarily related to IP. People want to do social enterprises or service businesses that potentially can create great impact from within The University as a vehicle to build new relationships with communities and business groups.
UMIP has three core activities to its function 1) IP commercialisation through portfolio management 2) Digital Marketing consisting of digital platforms which showcase and transact ‘one off’ assets that belong to the University such as images, research reagents and software, basically things that are easy to transact that will not be the subject of a major licence or a spin out 3) Innovation Optimiser which is about helping people to develop their research ideas, test the market opportunity and develop it through a start-up.
GP: Tell me more about the Innovation Optimiser
TW: Through Innovation Optimiser we help people develop their venturing ideas whether they are social, service or product based and there doesn't have to be any IP involved. This gives them an opportunity to plan ahead and to think what are the implications of being an academic or student entrepreneur, how is this done, what is the value of the idea and the commercial feasibility of the effort. For this we use the lean-start method, which helps to define the value proposition, think what it is about, who are the customers and what do you need in order to build a Minimum Value Product, moreover, what you need to start selling a product, and how you establish the right contact with the market and the customer.
So once we take the potential entrepreneur through the process and if the idea is good enough to be taken forward, we then offer mentoring, coaching, access to expertise, some funding. Also if any IP access is necessary to take the idea forward we help provide that as well. This allows us on a regular basis to deliver a programme of activities for people that want to jump on board and to then see if venturing out is the right thing for them.
It is not an accelerator as this is very time intensive and driven very quickly, is not an incubator because an incubator is a physical space, so we call it an Optimiser because that’s our aim, to optimise the opportunities for people to think about taking their research hypothesis or teaching into a venture and if then they want to go and do it, we provide support and assistance for them.
It gives the University an opportunity to optimise the entrepreneurial spirit of people around the campus- i.e. academic staff, professional staff or research students. We also work with MEC [Manchester Enterprise Centre] who work with the undergrad and postgrad community. So that’s what Optimiser is; a fit for purpose programme that is aimed at the academic and research community on campus, the timelines and frameworks are very much geared around researchers and how busy they are and provide them with the right incentive and training to take an idea forward. So it’s a fairly safe environment for people that are still on campus and doing their research, to be able to find out more on how the entrepreneurial journey may look like and then decide if it is or is not for them. If the answer is that it is for them, then we provide support for development, including speaker sessions, and workshops on specific subjects. We work in partnership with Manchester Enterprise Centre and it is a campus-based activity only at the moment but we also are discussing working with other selected partners on a wider basis.
GP: When does the Optimiser let go? When the support is cut from the organisation so the spin-out or start-up can run on its own?
TW: The first part would be to see if there is an idea that could be taken forward if there is a customer, a market, or something special or unique that we think is really different. To use an analogy, it is like taking a child through the stages of learning to walk, so you provide insight and guidance, getting people to really understand by questioning and thinking, really intensively, on what they are doing and why they are going to do it. Looking at the key things, customer, markets, and the value proposition and as they grow, make them able to put that down into some sort of business case. Later on, as they grow further they can learn to pitch their idea and get the message across very clearly and very quickly so it’s really easy to understand why they are doing it. From there, prepare for more growth and help them decide if they need some extra know-how or intellectual property.
The Optimiser provides small amounts of funding but the idea is that a venture at the end of the above-stated process should be able to secure their own funding. The Optimiser will make recommendations about where to get that funding but that is where the Optimiser lets go, when the venture is ready to go and pursue investments that are relevant for it, with an understanding that each case is different. However, there is always the possibility of an individual coming back with something new as that is at the core of the lean start-up method.
GP: Rosabeth Moss Kanter (Arbuckle professor of business administration) proposed that for an ecosystem to work properly needs to:
-Turn ideas into enterprises
-Link small and large businesses
-Better connect education to jobs
-Encourage cross-sector collaboration
So, in your opinion, in which of these ways is the Optimiser a contribution to The University of Manchester entrepreneurial ecosystem?
TW: Turning ideas into enterprises is certainly in the spirit of the Optimiser; moreover, as it is essentially located in an academic setting it is well positioned to connect education to job creation.
The general idea is that the inventions people have created, which would generally be related to their teaching/research knowledge, then can be turned into some sort of enterprise, whether it is a social enterprise or a commercial enterprise. And the idea is always that those that will be able to grow will create high-value jobs, especially for graduates and local employment, and then they will grow-up and become high growth companies, hiring more highly qualified people.
So it may take a large number of people at one end and come up with a small number of companies at the other end, but these companies with highly empowered people, allow the creation of jobs, and further research contributing back to the University. Thus encouraging cross-sector collaboration and linking small and large businesses through our networks of associates.
GP: When it comes to University spin-outs there is a strong component of IP, so how is the IP ownership managed at The University of Manchester?
TW: If you are a student and you pay your fees then you are the owner of your own IP. If a student that owns his/her IP would like to get some support and somehow potentially commercialise his/her IP through the University, then we would ask this student to assign their IP to the University, then the University would help them to commercialise it if it was a potentially worthwhile idea. Whereas normally students are able to do as they wish, they can join any accelerator, there is a lot of competition for students with IP. If early-on they are willing to tell us what their idea is and the potential of what they are working on, then the University can decide if it can help develop it.
If you are academic staff or a postgrad researcher, then they are normally employees of the
University under a contract with the University so any IP they create, particularly if they are under publicly funded research, is owned by the University. Less so with private research where normally the IP is shared with the funder of the research or owned by the company outright. Thus, we will more likely deal with IP derived from publicly funded research than from student’s IP or privately funded IP. The process starts with an academic or student providing a disclosure of what they think is of value.
Regarding spin-outs and start-ups, we deal with both, in spin-outs the IP is owned by the University and if there is a potential market, then we would work with the academic team to take the research forward, get a patent, and see ways of getting into the market. A start-up is where the academic wants to create a venture, it may not be necessarily based on IP as it may be a service based venture or social enterprise, but we can still help as we want to see as many entrepreneurial individuals as possible flourish. This is how the University can still benefit, by building bridges and networks with socially relevant players within the ecosystem and with research being applied to tackle social and/or health care issues. Thus, a spin out is more knowledge intensive IP-based, usually on University core research, while a start-up may not be IP based but is where the academic is a key part of taking that effort forward.
GP: Is there any ongoing effort to optimise entrepreneurial resources available for students and academic staff in Manchester?
TW: A sign of a healthy ecosystem is that there is no one size fits all, so there are a lot of opportunities going around student enterprise and specific areas (e.g. graphene, biomedical, etc.). I think that is really good to have such a variety of opportunities, because if you are the only person in town who owns a particular shop and everybody shops with you, that is good but also means that everyone is relying on you. Whereas when you have an enterprise ecosystem that is healthy such as the one in Manchester and around the University, there are more benefits for entrepreneurs.
The more outlets there are for people´s innovation and enterprise efforts the more it benefits the city and everywhere else. I think it’s a good sign, as long as it does not become competitive or dominant or where people are having issues with who is doing what.
It may be overwhelming for start-up entrepreneur at the beginning but it’s just like entering a large shopping mall, you have to walk around and see what is on offer.