Turning ideas into big bucks

March 19, 1999

Business plan contests with cash prizes are taking off as a way to tempt university researchers into a more entrepreneurial culture. Julia Hinde reports

Commercialising university research and transforming knowledge into new businesses are the in-vogue ideas that, it is claimed, will drive Britain's success in the 21st century.

With potentially hundreds of money-spinning ideas hidden away in universities and research centres, finding ways of bringing them to market is preoccupying people from the Treasury, the research councils and individual universities.

December's competitiveness white paper put such ideas firmly at the centre of government thinking. Last week, the budget allocated more government money to University Challenge, creating seed funds to help convert university research into potential business ventures, and established a Pounds 20 million venture capital fund to help new high-technology companies.

Universities and research councils are also getting in on the act. There are grants to be won, potentially huge profits to be made and a target to reach. The government wants to see 50 per cent more start-up firms every year.

One way universities worldwide are trying to commercialise their research is through business plan competitions.

Britain is finally getting on the competition bandwagon. The first such challenge is up and running in the biosciences. A second competition is being planned for students at Cambridge and Bristol universities, with plans for the event - if it attracts participants - to eventually go national.

Both the biosciences competition and that planned for Cambridge and Bristol offer considerable cash prizes for the best idea - money that will go some way to help the winners transform their business plan into reality. But perhaps more important, they also offer training and mentoring to enable scientists with good ideas to learn the basics of commercialisation.

Britain is not the first to offer such carrots to researchers to develop their ideas. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which stages an annual $50,000 competition, there are now more than 25 such competitions being run worldwide, many based on the MIT model.

A recent seminar held by MIT organisers in Singapore attracted 140 participants from four continents - including mainland China - to learn how MIT spins success. With 35 companies created directly from the MIT competition still in business in the United States - many earning many millions of dollars a year - it is not surprising that universities across the world are trying to emulate MIT's experience.

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