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Winning early-career researchers excel in entrepreneurship

6 December 2011

After an intense day of competition in London, a team of four budding biotechnology entrepreneurs from the University of Oxford have emerged as the winners of this year's Biotechnology Young Entrepreneurs Scheme (YES).

  Young science entrepreneurs: Biotechnology YES 2011

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Winners of the 2011 Biotechnology Young Entrepreneurs Scheme (YES) competition are Ben Owens, Hannah Richards, Bonnie Murphy and Philip Wulff from The University of Oxford.

The team pitched their plan for a hypothetical business called Metachem Solutions to a panel of investors. The panel were impressed by their idea for using yeast to produce high value fragrance components.

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said "I would like to congratulate the winners of the Biotechnology and Environment YES competitions on their success. Scientists who are able to combine their expertise with an understanding of business are a very precious resource. By learning how to translate research into wider successes, they can help ensure their work delivers the maximum benefits to society and the economy.

"I am impressed that the participants are taking the opportunity to develop their skills and knowledge at this early stage of their careers - it suggests a bright future for the commercialisation of UK research."

Biotechnology YES is annual business plan competition designed to raise awareness of commercialisation amongst bioscience postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers. The teams prepare a business plan for an imaginary company, generally based on hypothetical (but plausible) science. The team members assume the roles of directors of their company and seek funding for their business plan from a group of equity investors.

The winning team, Metachem Solutions: [l-r] Phillip Wulff, Hannah Richards, Bonnie Murphy and Ben Owens. Copyright: Martyn Poynor

The winning team, Metachem Solutions: [l -r] Philip Wulff, Hannah Richards, Bonnie Murphy and Ben Owens. Copyright: Martyn Poynor

Biotechnology YES was developed and is delivered by a partnership between the University of Nottingham, Institute of Enterprise and Innovation (UNIEI) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

In the run up to the finals in London, teams competed at 5 regional heats across the country. This year, for the first time, one of these heats was hosted by an industrial sponsor, the agri-business Syngenta, at their Jealott's Hill site. This gave participants the opportunity to learn about the commercialisation of science from the perspective of a large agri-business company expanding the career horizons beyond academia.

This year's winning team of four early-career researchers emerged from the 390 competitors across all of the regional heats. Their Managing Director, Ben Owens, said "We're delighted to have won. We formed our team especially for the competition - we didn't all know each other before - and it has been an incredible journey.

The winning team from the University of Oxford and Dr. Malcolm Skingle  Director of Academic Liaison, GlaxoSmithKline. Copyright: Martyn Poynor

The winning team from the University of Oxford and Dr. Malcolm Skingle Director of Academic Liaison, GlaxoSmithKline. Copyright: Martyn Poynor

"It has been great to develop a diverse range of skills outside of the lab and I know these are going to be invaluable for the rest of my career. The competition has made me think completely differently about how academic research can be translated to a commercial environment and has given me the confidence to think that researchers can do it themselves - take your own research forward to create a viable business. It's really unique to have this kind of opportunity and I really encourage all early-career researchers to get involved."

Professor Sir Tom Blundell, Chair of BBSRC and after dinner speaker at the Biotechnology YES 2011 final said "Congratulations to the winners and to all of the finalists. I have had the pleasure to be involved with Biotechnology YES for many of its sixteen years and the participants' entrepreneurial skills seem to improve year on year.

"It is clear when speaking to the participants that they have many exciting ideas for commercialising their science whilst having also spent an enormous amount of time and effort developing an understanding of the principles of finance, marketing and intellectual property. These will be an invaluable asset in their future careers and I wish them the best."

Glyn Edwards Interim CE of the BioIndustry Association said "Recent announcements by the government have underlined how important the commercialisation of our world-class life sciences research will be to rebalancing our economy and driving growth. The early-career researchers I saw at Biotechnology YES demonstrated an impressive understanding of what it takes to bring scientific research to market and tremendous enthusiasm for taking their science out of the lab. Encouraging and developing business skills in scientists is a great investment for the UK economy."

[l-r] Dr Simon Cutler BBSRC, Dr Fiona Marston RFM Associates, Dr Celia Caulcott BBSRC, Hannah Richards, Prof Sir Tom Blundell, Chair of BBSRC, Bonnie Murphy, Dr Ray Elliott, Syngenta, Phillip Wulff, Dr Malcolm Skingle, GSK, Ben Owens. Credit: M Poynor

The winning team with Biotechnology YES sponsors, judges and organisers. l-r: Dr Simon Cutler, BBSRC, Dr Fiona Marston, RFM Associates, Dr Celia Caulcott, BBSRC, Hannah Richards, Winning team, Professor Sir Tom Blundell, Chair of BBSRC, Bonnie Murphy, Winning team, Dr Ray Elliott, Syngenta, Philip Wulff, Winning team, Dr Malcolm Skingle, GSK, Ben Owens, Winning team. Copyright: Martyn Poynor

An independent review of Biotechnology YES published in 2010 showed that it gives early career researchers the edge in entrepreneurial skills and future career prospects. Having participated in the competition, early career scientists are well prepared to move into industry where their improved entrepreneurial skills are highly valued. There is some evidence to suggest that past participants perceive their earning potential as greater following the competition and the review indicates that the skills gained are exactly complementary to those acquired during a PhD.

For the sixth year, a spin-off competition called Environment YES has been run by the Natural Environment Research Council. 3 teams competed last night in parallel with the Biotechnology YES competition for the Environment YES title, with ReNeVention Ltd from the University of East Anglia being crowned the winners.

Other winners in the Biotechnology YES competition were:

  • Best healthcare business plan sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline - Instant Diagnostics
  • Best consideration of financial planning strategy sponsored by James Cowper LLP - Instant Diagnostics
  • Best consideration of IP strategy sponsored by Potter Clarkson - Synthetica
  • Best plant and microbial business plan sponsored by Syngenta - Hortisense
  • Best presenter sponsored by University of Nottingham Institute for Enterprise and Innovation - Mehmet Fidanboylu from Biomimix and Qasim Rafiq from Scigen

ENDS

2011 Finalists

Biotechnology YES

Note: All companies are hypothetical and products are imaginary.

Biomimix (King's College London and Imperial College London) have designed a synthetic analogue of the venom from parasitic wasps which is being developed as a pain relief therapy.

Cyan (University of Glasgow). Due to the recent ban on the use of antibiotics in animal feed to promote growth, farmers have seen a reduction in their profitability. Cyan aims to fulfil this market need using their patented product, a novel strain of blue - green algae which has immunopotentiating effects when grown under specific conditions.

Horti-Sense (John Innes Centre) have developed a compound which binds to boron to initiate a colour change. This allows for detection of boron in soil which is an unexploited but important market. This is complemented in their product NUTRI-ORB with other nutrient detection tests.

Instant Diagnostics (University College London) have developed an antibody based diagnostic kit for the detection of key sexually transmitted diseases.

Metachem Solutions (University of Oxford) developed a novel yeast based biosynthetic platform for production of high value fragrance components.

Salga Technologies (University of Manchester) uses GM algae to remove salt from seawater by sodium channel alterations. They plan to sell their algae kit to desalination plants.

Scigen (Loughborough University) developed a bacteriocin which promotes a multi-spectrum activity against harmful pathogens. Key application will be its wage as a biopreservative in the food industry.

Soil Solutions (University of Cambridge) have developed the product Biohydrate, a naturally occuring polymer produced by bacteria which improves water retention in soil. This polymer binds water molecules and expands to 1000x its weight. Under drought conditions, the water is released and becomes available to the plant. The benefits of this product are reduced irrigation costs, reduced fertiliser leaching and increased crop yield.

Synthetica (University of Liverpool) - Recycling Plastics to Drive Your Future - has a novel process to enzymatically degrade waste plastics into ethanol for use as a biofuel.

Environment YES

Note: All companies are hypothetical and products are imaginary.

AGC Technologies (Universities of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt) has developed a novel chromium based catalyst on a solid state support that facilitates the conversion of methane to methanol at room temperature.

ReNeVention Ltd (University of East Anglia) identified and purified the protein responsible for silican capsules in diatoms. They have invented the technology to synthetically produce the protein in nanoscale and are able to use its heat absorbing property by producing 3D nanotubular matrices. With this technology they are able to harvest and recycle the wasted heat energy from electrical appliances.

Vortech Forecasting (Universities of Cambridge, East Anglia, Oxford and Liverpool) produce superior short-term regional wind forecasts by combining outsourced observational data collection and a unique forecasting algorithm. The forecasts will be sold to energy companies to allow better demand management and to financial traders who will use them to profit from electricity futures speculation.

Sponsorhip

The competition receives support from:

  • Bioindustry Association
  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
  • GlaxoSmithKline (GSK)
  • Medical Research Council (MRC)
  • Medical Research Council Technology (MRC T)
  • Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
  • Nestle
  • Proctor and Gamble
  • SULSA
  • Syngenta
  • University of Nottingham Institute for Enterprise and Innovation (UNIEI)
  • Wellcome Trust

About UNIEI

The University of Nottingham Institute for Enterprise and Innovation (UNIEI) is a world class centre committed to the development of entrepreneurial skills and the commercial innovation of new technologies and ideas. Our purpose is to engage staff and students in the acquisition of enterprise skills so that they are better able to realize the opportunities generated in a rapidly developing entrepreneurial culture. UNIEI aims to be at the forefront of international thinking and best practice in engaging universities and businesses in the process of wealth creation. For more information see: www.nottingham.ac.uk/enterprise.

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk .
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes .