Trading bureaucracy for big business

August 25, 2000

In the last in our series on sabbaticals, Sandro Macchietto writes in praise of the spin-off experience

We launched the company Process Systems Enterprise in July 1997 and I took 18 months off from my post at Imperial College, London, to get it up and running. Although the arrangement was that I would go back to Imperial as director of the centre for process systems engineering, I was tempted not to return. It was not just the money - it was the excitement.

Being an academic these days is very demanding. There is an enormous amount of bureaucracy and unexciting things to do to justify your existence. It is more interesting - and easier -to be on the outside.

I have since returned to my day job, although I am still involved in the company as chairman. The main reason I came back was that I had given my word. The other reason was that we have a very exciting centre here - the best place in the world to work in my field.

We were thinking about setting up the company for about two years so it was not a spur of the moment thing. We did a lot of background work putting together ideas, financing and discussing arrangements with the college.

PSE, a high-tech software business, was launched to produce and market technology - dealing with modelling, simulation, advanced planning and scheduling - developed at Imperial.

Much of our early research was carried out in collaboration with industry - but also with the help of friends who tested out the technology. It was when they began pressing us for the finished software that we realised we were faced with a great opportunity.

I and a few friends from the centre got our heads together and thought, why not? We had done enough market research and produced a business plan and there was enough interest to stick our necks out.

Launching a business from a university base is now all the rage, but at that time it was a new idea and Imperial was quite tentative. But we put a compelling case and won the support we needed.

The initial stages of the venture were complex. As well as my unpaid leave, the university had to agree to time out for my colleagues. In return, we offered the college a minority share in the company. Now that I am returning to my academic role, one of my colleagues will take a year's leave to focus on the business.

The company's offices in Hammersmith are separate from the university because we were determined not to mix college and private activities. We were able to bring a lot of experience from academia - the college environment is highly enterprising - but we actually found life a lot easier outside university. There were fewer bureaucrats on our backs and fewer journalists ringing up, fewer people asking us to write reports and contribute to the research assessment exercise.

To be a successful academic these days you need to be an excellent researcher, people manager and administrator. It is good management training. So setting up a company was more of the same but easier.

One of the reasons I came back to Imperial was that I wanted to stay in touch with the fundamental research. I believe for the kind of things the company is doing it is vital to continue to develop ideas because commercial applications have a limited life. It is important to be able to do exciting new science and then to translate it quickly into a commercial product.

Since we set up the business three years ago, Imperial, like many other universities, has become a lot more enthusiastic about this type of initiative. It has set up structures to help, including its own company - IC Innovations - to facilitate income generation by new companies.

Imperial recently had a big success with its first billion dollar flotation. I like to feel we were among the first to push open the door.

Our company is now doing very well. Turnover is more than Pounds 1 million and we are doing business worldwide.

Having a bit of a breather from the usual academic issues has increased my awareness of the commercial value of research and has given me a greater appreciation of the need to provide mechanisms for distributing it. I also have a much greater appreciation of the link between fundamental developments and practical applications.

I hope to be able to take more leave at some point. I see there will be a need for a revolving door that would benefit both sides. We are bringing a lot of funding into research at Imperial through companies that we were in touch with in a commercial capacity. This has been very fruitful for the university.

I hope to be able to reconcile active professional life with an active research life in some way, as is normal for doctors, lawyers and architects. I think that is the way it should be.

It used to be like that. You would not go anywhere near an engineer, for example, who had not practised.

I think for many years the fact that people have been closed in ivory towers has been quite unhelpful. I hope universities will find more ways of allowing them to move between the two.

Sandro Macchietto is director, centre for process systems engineering, Imperial College, London.

Details: www.psenterprise.com www.icinnovations.co.uk

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