Dragon’s zen: how to handle the jump from HE to a commercial venture

The learning curve is steep when leaving academia for an entrepreneurial adventure. John Miles outlines what to expect and says the skills you learned as a researcher can help

John Miles's avatar
24 November 2021
Turning an idea into a commercial interest is a hugely rewarding but challenging journey for university academics
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When my university colleagues heard I was leaving my role to go off on an entrepreneurial adventure, without exception they warmly wished me the best of luck in my endeavours. But a few of them no doubt suspected that I had succumbed to a kind of madness. After all, I was abandoning a permanent role at Oxford and a prestigious college affiliation – together, tantamount to career gold dust. But starting our company and making the jump from higher education to the commercial world has been the best professional move I have made – and perhaps also the most challenging.

Proving your concept 

Getting a commercial venture up and running begins with an idea, and in my case that idea came from first-hand experience managing a large training programme alongside my academic work. Brilliant as they were, very few of the students and researchers with whom I worked would keep detailed records of their achievements. Without this raw material to hand, articulating their diverse skills for potential employers was hard, and the end of their studies could feel like a career precipice, approaching fast.

Of course, this is not just a problem for students and researchers, it is a problem for universities, too. Career destinations, equality and access, research funding, well-being – the list of agenda upon which this has an impact runs on and on.

Trying out existing technological offerings only made the need for a better solution clearer. So, bravely or brashly, I decided to do something about it. After coding my own proof-of-concept, I presented it to Oxford’s inaugural IT innovation competition (think Dragon’s Den with senior university staff), won some funding to develop the idea further and made a start.

Two important components of this beginning were the proof-of-concept and the time spent thinking and developing it. If you are considering pitching to potential funders or investors, a prototype demonstrates not only your idea and its possibilities but also your capacity to execute it. The third component, of course, was funding: in my case I was lucky enough to be in an institution well-practiced in supporting and developing commercial ideas, but these types of opportunities and support are not uncommon in UK universities, even though it may take some digging to find them.

 

Spinning out 

It rapidly became clear that the skills and career development platform we were developing was relevant beyond Oxford and beyond higher education, and that if we could marry up an engaging solution for students and researchers with an event management and reporting interface that was indispensable for their institutions, there was great commercial potential at hand. Because my idea had been developed in the university, I found myself on the “spin out” route, along which Oxford would provide support via their tech transfer arm but would also take an equity stake in the resulting company.

If you are propelling your venture down a similar path, you will find that you need to negotiate with your institution regarding the size of that stake and what that means in terms of the support you can expect. This might include assistance with patenting and/or help securing funding from investor pools to which your institution may have access. Getting some independent advice can be useful at this stage.

Building your proposition 

Then the real hard work begins. Building your proposition is, of course, not just about delivering a great commercial product, it’s also how you define and approach your initial market, how you demonstrate thought leadership in that space, how you build sustainable technical and support operations if required and how you resource the effort with brilliant people. Jumping into the commercial context can feel like a shock: there are few if any organisational safety nets and, as your “new baby” and current and future livelihood, the company will be nothing less than all-consuming.

The learning curve is steep. I have had to build and enlist expertise in a huge range of areas, from contract law and privacy legislation to all things corporate, HR and finance. Add to that the need to keep current in the technological landscape and to understand and engage with a venture capital language and mode of thinking, plus pressure to deliver from investors and your existing and prospective customers, and it would be easy to feel overwhelmed.

Research as a preparation for enterprise 

All these things would be difficult to manage were it not for the wonderful team we have built at Inkpath. And many of the skills I developed as a researcher have come in handy too: the ability to combine a high-level vision with attention to detail; to communicate concepts concisely and persuasively to a range of audiences; to listen to criticism and know which naysayers to address now and which to address later; to deal with pressure; to be ready to learn new things quickly and with alacrity.

Whenever I encounter my former colleagues, I am glad and quietly proud to say that it has been well worth the jump into the unknown.

John Miles is founder and CEO at Inkpath. He built the very first proof-of-concept prototype of Inkpath while at the University of Oxford, where he was training officer for the humanities division and a research associate at Wadham College.

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