Make your bid for the market

September 11, 1998

At the British Association's annual science festival, Susan Kingsman explained how to turn research into lucrative products (below), while others called for detail and openness in debating genetically altered plants (bottom). Alison Goddard reports

Susan Kingsman used her lecture at the British Association's science festival in Cardiff this week to tell scientists how to make serious money.Professor Kingsman, who is research director of Oxford BioMedica and co-director of the retrovirus molecular biology group at the University of Oxford, said that many academics view setting up a company as a quick way of making millions. However, the role involves extensive planning and responsibility.

"The first thing is to identify a product, something that someone will want to buy," she said. To do this, researchers must have commercial awareness, perhaps gained through collaboration with industry," she said.

"Second, you need to be very aware of why you think you have a unique product to sell," Professor Kingsman said. For those products that do something better than others extant, the market has already been identified. For completely new products, careful market research is required.

And there is a final requirement. "The third thing is to make sure that you own your invention, or that the invention is owned by someone and that you have access to it," she said. "It is absolutely critical that before you make any commercial move, you have filed a patent." The alternative - keeping details of the research secret - is impossible in academia, she added.

Universities are becoming much more open to creating spin-off companies. Some, such as Manchester and Imperial College, London, have incubator units. Technology transfer arms within universities can be a great aid in filing a patent and in directing researchers towards funds, she said.

Another way to fund commercial exploitation is to approach a venture capital company directly. Or money could be forthcoming from the University Challenge fund, a Pounds 50 million venture capital fund set up by the government to help commercialise promising research.

But Professor Kingsman warned that funds will not be forthcoming unless the research has been patented. "No one will invest in you unless you have that intellectual property right."

She also pointed out some potential traps of commercialising academic research. "The major pitfall is thinking that you can do it alone," she said. "The second is to think that the technology stops with your idea. You cannot be isolated and inward-looking."

For example, it is not enough just to file a single patent and forget about it. Rivals can file patents for minor improvements on the design, and although you could take them to court, small companies often lack the finances to do so. Professor Kingsman recommends filing a family of patents to avoid this trap.

It is also vital to have the time to dedicate to establishing the business. Professor Kingsman founded Oxford BioMedica with her partner, Alan Kingsman; and they are both co-directors of the retrovirus molecular biology group at the University of Oxford. Researchers at an earlier stage in their career might be unable to afford this time. Shifting from being employed by a large university to hiring your own staff can also be unsettling.

The Kingsmans established Oxford BioMedica in 1995, and it was floated on the alternative investment market of the London Stock Exchange in December 1996. It is now worth Pounds 20 million, but Susan Kingsman believes that the whole of the bioscience sector is undervalued. The company, which develops gene therapy drugs, has more than 30 staff.

Early next year, Oxford BioMedica is due to start clinical trials of its drugs on women in advanced stages of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. It is the first stage in a five-year programme that Professor Kingsman hopes will culminate with the drugs reaching the market. Already the drugs are being manufactured for the trial. "They are going to be in little bottles with Oxford BioMedica written on the side," she enthuses. "Gene therapy is just acceleratingI it will be used in five years' time."

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