Spinning dreams into reality

Two new Royal Society funds aim to help science's entrepreneurs as well as its visionaries. Zoe Corbyn reports

October 9, 2008

The UK's national science academy has launched two new funding streams, one to help entrepreneurs commercialise their ideas and the other to further blue-skies research.

The Royal Society last week announced details of the Enterprise Fund, initially worth £5 million, to allow enterprising UK scientists and engineers to turn their inventions into businesses.

At the other end of the spectrum, it also announced the creation of the Theo Murphy Blue Skies Award, which will invest £1 million annually into purely curiosity-driven research that has no obvious, immediate economic potential.

Both are the result of philanthropic donations received by the society under the banner of a 350th-anniversary campaign to raise £100 million of private money for science.

"(The new schemes) are focused on applied science and blue-skies science respectively and reflect the need to make sure that all areas of research are well funded," said Lord Rees, the president of the Royal Society.

The Enterprise Fund seeks to address one of the biggest problems facing entrepreneurial scientists and engineers: the difficulty of attracting private funding to turn inventions into businesses when the financial risks of such ventures are so high.

The fund is based on a so-called venture philanthropy model. Comprising donations from several UK business leaders including Lord Sainsbury, the former Science Minister, it will be used by the Royal Society to invest in early-stage science and technology companies, either helping to form them or to get them off the ground. Any profits will be ploughed back into the fund to help more companies.

"We are creating an evergreen perpetual investment mechanism to help early-stage companies," said Andrew Mackintosh, who has been appointed the fund's chief executive.

He admits that it is uncharted territory for the Royal Society. "As far as we are aware, no academy of sciences is doing this (supporting early-stage venture capitalism)," he said.

One benefit of the society's fund - for which it is also seeking new investors to reach a £20 million target - is that it will be able to invest in companies over a long timescale. "Hopefully we can use that to support technologies that take a long time to mature," Dr Mackintosh said.

But the funds' donors do not see it merely as a way of encouraging young companies; it is also being viewed strategically.

"This is the UK academy of sciences saying the translation of science into useful products and services ... is an important part of scientific activity," Dr Mackintosh said.

Early-stage investments of between £250,000 and £2 million are planned, and the fund is not limited to academics, although this is likely to be where the society's strongest links are. There is no deadline for applications, but inventors looking to apply should submit business plans "sooner rather than later", as funds are limited.

The Enterprise Fund was welcomed by Semali Perera, a researcher in the department of chemical engineering at the University of Bath, who received a previous award from the Royal Society for near-market research based around nanotechnology to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. She now has her own company, Nano-porous Solutions.

"There is not enough money out there," she said, emphasising scientists' fear that UK technology may be taken forward and developed by other countries.

Unconventional thinkers will get a boost from the new award for blue-skies research, which is funded by money bequeathed to the society by a Melbourne lawyer, Theo Murphy. The aim is to fund ideas that are so novel and so creative that they do not easily attract mainstream funding.

"(It is for) transformative and unproven ideas, which is what early-stage science should be about," said Chris Toumazou, director of Imperial College London's Institute of Biomedical Engineering and chair of the Royal Society panel that will award the grants.

He said that with the focus of mainstream funding on applied research and "big problems", it was too often the case that researchers did not have access to the money needed to make their ideas a reality.

The fund will dispense awards typically between £50,000 and £150,000, and applications will open on 10 November.

Research on the boundaries between disciplines is being particularly targeted, and the work does not have to have a basis in existing literature. Winners will be chosen not by standard peer review but rather on the basis of the novelty of their ideas and their potential to open up new areas.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

See: http://royalsociety.org/enterprisefund/.

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