Scots arrive in enterprise zone

February 20, 1998

Scotland's first Technology Enterprise Show, aimed at helping academics commercialise their research, had a distinct feel of the Tardis to it. A small entrance within Heriot-Watt University's conference centre led into an "ideas zone", a "resources zone" and an "action zone" which seemed significantly larger than their circumference suggested.

"The first thing to recognise is that you are not alone," a flier for the event proclaimed, unnecessarily as dozens of emerald-sweatered experts and hundreds of academics rushed towards one another as if magnetically attracted.

The show was the latest event in the ten-year Technology Ventures strategy, launched in 1996 by the national development agency Scottish Enterprise and the Royal Society of Edinburgh to commercialise Scotland's research in science and technology. The strategy is backed by higher education institutions: Heriot-Watt, Edinburgh and Napier universities helped to sponsor the day, and another seven shows are planned across Scotland this year and next.

Sir Stewart Sutherland, principal of Edinburgh University and a member of the Technology Ventures leadership group, said the show aimed to be a source of inspiration to everyone in science and technology. "Too often a good idea is lost because the route to commercial reality is perceived as daunting."

The show would eliminate the mystique by demonstrating how it could be done, and pointing people in the right direction, he said.

Breda McMillan, head of the Technology Ventures team, said that the aim is to make it clear that academics have a number of routes to commercialisation. Some might prefer to become entrepreneurs rather than career academics, but others might prefer a hands-off role through licensing, non-executive directorships or a joint venture with industry.

The day's one-stop shop let them speak to entrepreneurs, patent agents, corporate lawyers, venture capitalists, business angels, industrial liaison officers and technical experts to discuss potential opportunities and pitfalls.

One of the first visitors was Emanuele Trucco of Heriot-Watt's computer vision group. His research is in image processing, applied in particular to sub-sea robotics and inspection.

Heriot-Watt staff were perhaps more aware than most of commercialisation prospects, he said, following an initiative by its Institute of Technology Management which allows a dry run launch of a company. It has a team of expert volunteers, including business people, who evaluate the commercial potential of a research project, and then set up a "virtual" company, supplying the market research, funding, contacts and managerial expertise until they are sure that a full commercial launch is viable.

"It wasn't until the university put this informal mechanism in place that I became interested in commercialisation beyond the normal routes that an academic takes, such as collaboration through funded projects," Dr Trucco said.

His visit to the show began with a computerised personal assessment, which included responding to statements such as "I enjoy socialising in large groups" and "I accept and recognise that it is up to me to transform my aspirations into reality".

Brenda Bruce of the Research Initiative, the commercial organisation which developed the assessment software, said it was designed to start people thinking about aspects of their personality which might have an impact on their business. This could, for example, suggest that they find a partner with complementary attitudes.

"People tend to think primarily about the product, technology, money and market, and not about themselves and what they bring as a business person."

Dr Trucco said there was a potential clash between the idea of setting up one's own business, and being supported by a body such as Heriot-Watt's ITM, which meant the academic would not be personally responsible for taking forward the company as managing director.

By the end of the day, a third of the 500 attendees said they rated "very highly" the show's usefulness in encouraging them to investigate commercialisation. More than 40 per cent said they planned to set up in business at some point, while 26 per cent said they would now start work on a business idea.

One academic who has gone ahead was Hugh MacKenzie of Heriot-Watt's physics department. He set up a company in 1970 to develop a measuring system which has applications for both health care and the offshore oil industry. Dr MacKenzie already has a licensing agreement with a major US company for measuring blood glucose, and is negotiating a licence for measuring levels of oil in water.

He attended the show to check potential help from business angels, private individuals who invest in young, growing companies, and reputedly have some Pounds 25 million available for investment in Scotland. Most are experienced business people who like to be involved in the companies they support, and Dr MacKenzie was keen to attract some business expertise. When he began his company, there was no support from bodies such as Scottish Enterprise and the Institute of Technology Management. "I had to get shareholding organised for the people involved in the intellectual property rights, and undertake patenting and the whole legal rigmarole of licensing agreements on my own," he said.

"For an individual to do this is really a mountain to climb. ITM has now got the infrastructure to deal with every aspect, and leave the academics to do what they're good at, the research and getting the technology established."

* The next Technology Enterprise Show will be in Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall on March and 28. Dundee will host a show at the end of April. Further information is at: http://www.technologyventures.org

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