The right support can help scientists turn their best ideas into businesses

Scientists can find it tough to turn a great idea or innovation into a successful business. Shutterstock

Science can – and frequently does – change the world. But it’s one thing to come up with a brilliant idea and an entirely different thing to bring it to life. Scientists aren’t necessarily business people. The good news, Dr Imogen Wright says, is that support for young scientists who want to commercialise their ideas is growing across Africa.

Wright, an academic who co-founded a bioinformatics company in South Africa, chatted to The Conversation Africa’s science and technology editor Natasha Joseph about what’s changing.

Your PhD, which is in bioinformatics, involved designing and implementing an algorithm. This is now used by the company you co-founded, Hyrax Biosciences. So what came first: the algorithm or the business idea? Or did they grow together?

Actually, something even more important preceded both: I had the right supervisor. I first spoke to Professor Simon Travers in 2011 while hunting for a PhD topic. We discussed an intractable problem he faced in his HIV research group at South Africa’s University of the Western Cape.

Essentially, a new technology called “next-generation” sequencing had the potential to greatly reduce the cost of HIV drug resistance testing. But no sufficiently accurate software existed that could analyse the vast quantities of noisy data produced by the machines.

Instead of waiting patiently for the tools to catch up to the hardware, Simon took a more direct approach – and a bit of a leap of faith. He hired me to do a high-performance computing project in a bioinformatics lab even though I was ignorant about biology and he didn’t have a computer science background. Because we were each brave enough to learn a new discipline to get the job done, we ended up making something entirely novel. That laid the groundwork for a much greater leap of faith: starting a business together.

We’re four co-founders and a number of PhD students and employees made crucial contributions: it takes a village to build something worthwhile. Ultimately the decision we made to turn Exatype, our HIV drug resistance testing platform, into a business, hinged on our desire to see it commercialised in a way that would actually benefit the people we were trying to help. That still drives our efforts and is the reason we’re focusing on TB drug resistance next.

You’re a scientist, from your undergraduate degree all the way through to your PhD. How did you get involved in the business side of things?

While I’m now firmly in the “applied” science box, I believe basic scientific research is essential. I’ve been lucky enough to see both ends of the spectrum. My master’s was in some pretty esoteric theoretical physics, but immediately afterwards I worked as a developer at Amazon on its Elastic Compute Cloud service. When I went back to academia to begin a PhD, I found I had a completely different attitude. I wanted to build systems that had real practical value. So when Simon floated the idea of turning Exatype into a business I jumped at the chance.

What sort of skills should young scientists be developing if their work involves dreaming up, designing and implementing products that could be parlayed into business ideas?

The most critical asset a scientist has is academic integrity. There’s absolutely never a reason to sacrifice that for commercial success. Many young scientists are worried about moving into business because they’ll stop being “proper scientists”, but I’ve found that to be nonsense. The market is utterly ruthless, with flimsy claims of novelty that don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Scientists who want to build companies should have at least a little experience of how a company works on the inside. It’s particularly critical to learn to listen to your customers and empathise with them: build what they want, not what you want! Leadership and management skills are also very important, and can be learnt. I’ve benefited hugely from the skills I learnt in my time with the Young African Leaders’ Initiative.

Luckily though, many of the skills that are important in academia are equally important in business. The ability to give a compelling 30-second pitch – but an equally compelling hour-long presentation – is a prerequisite as an entrepreneur and as a researcher. If I could give one piece of practical advice, it would be this: practise every presentation 20 times before you give it to an audience. Obsessive, perhaps, but it works.

In your experience – having worked in South Africa and recently picked up a pan-African award – is there enough support for scientists who want to build businesses?

There are great routes to entrepreneurship becoming available to scientists through South African universities. Our company has benefited enormously from this – the University of the Western Cape’s technology transfer office has been an incredible support. They’ve helped us license and protect our intellectual property, guided us in how to set up the company, made us aware of promotion opportunities and advised us on everything from accounts to hiring.

It’s quite a leap to go from tinkering in a lab to meeting with large corporate customers and navigating legal implications. We needed a lot of guidance in the beginning but they were there to help us through it.

There is always a risk involved in starting a business, but universities are prioritising innovation like never before, as are initiatives like the South African Medical Research Council’s Strategic Health Innovation Partnership and the Innovation Prize for Africa. What we need now is a generation of young African scientists with the tenacity to see their ideas through to the market.

It shouldn’t be a secret that starting a business provides the most deeply challenging, rewarding career possible and that this is particularly true for young, highly-qualified scientists.