While looking through the Researcher Career Stories on the Vitae website recently, I was struck by how many of the researchers had started their own business or undertaken some form of freelance or consultancy work. Some set up their own business alongside a PhD, part-time teaching or research work or other paid employment. Others became entrepreneurs during a period of unemployment, through commercialising their research and developing spin-off companies, or in response to dissatisfaction with the values or working practices of their current employer. Connections are often drawn between the skills and attributes needed to build a successful research career and those needed to be a successful entrepreneur. As highlighted in yesterday's blog post, both entrepreneurrship and research involve problem-solving. As well as this, both involve creativity, confidence in the value and originality of your own ideas, risk-taking, independance, building effective networks and collaborations and communicating the value of your ideas to others. One of the Vitae case studies, Max Robinson, talks about these connections between entrepreneurship and research: 'My background of doctoral completion provided me with skills and experience in writing technically demanding concepts clearly and succintly. This part of doctoral study is so important, because it is about selling your ideas and convincing people that there is a gap for your research.' Max goes on to highlight the importance of a mentor in setting up a business; mentoring relationships are also highly valuable in academia. In both contexts, mentors can introduce you to their contacts, be a sounding-board for ideas, read through funding applications, and provide encouragement, reality checks and the wisdom of their own experience.
Max found a mentor useful because he felt 'naive about commercial issues'. In a 2009 Vitae reort on Employer Practice on recruiting researchers, commercial awareness was ranked bottom among seven skills on which employers were asked to judge university researchers. Getting involved in entrepreuneurship activities during your PhD or postdoctoral research contract, whether of not you're intending to start your own business, is a great way to demonstrate knowledge of the issues businesses have to take account of, as well as developing contacts with industry.
So how do you get started? The Researcher Development Unit runs courses on research commercialisation and entrepreneurship. If you have a research idea you would like to commercialise, get in touch with the Entreprise and Knoweledge Expoitation Team within the Research and Innovation Office. Something else well-worth checking out is the Researcher to Innovator Programme, which can help you think through the impact of your research and offers access to industrial mentors and advice from other researchers-turned-entrepreneurs. Our researcher web pages have other advice and useful links relating to entrepreneurship and self-employment.