Bridging the gap between research and commercial reality

On the 20th anniversary of the Peter Farrell Cup, one of its originators, Wallace Bridge, reflects on his own journey to become a commercialisation-focused scientist, and his involvement with this proven life-changing competition since its inception.

Wallace

Original story by Naomi Menahem here.

In the mid-1980s, I scored my first industry-based research job. My mission at the time was to help develop a technology for converting sugar cane waste fibrous material (bagasse) into ethanol for use as a biofuel. We worked hard and diligently, and ultimately engineered an elegant multistep process that could get the job done. Mission accomplished – how exciting it was to achieve this technical success!

And then came the barrage of challenging questions from management. What are the economics? What are the yields? How much will it cost to make per litre? What are the logistics? Is it competitive? Sadly, my science studies had not prepared me to comprehend, let alone answer, these questions. Like most aspiring scientists, I had not realised, or had been taught at university, the fundamental connection between business and science, which translates to no money means no science. Over the next 10 years, I embraced the mentorship and in-house company training that was offered to teach me how to incorporate business imperatives into my research projects.

In the mid 1990s, I was seconded to UNSW to help manage a cooperative research centre (CRC) within the then UNSW Department of Biotechnology. As a newly appointed adjunct academic, I quickly developed a passion for teaching commercialisation training. In 2001, I was hired by UNSW Science to found and manage the Entrepreneurs in Science Unit (archived at www.eis.unsw.edu.au). The EIS unit would go on to offer programs to our undergrad and postgrad students aimed at educating them on how to recognise, evaluate, communicate and manage commercial opportunity arising from their research.

I also joined the management committee for the establishment of the AGSM’s (Australian Graduate School of Management) annual student-run business planning competition, which would within a few years become the Peter Farrell Cup (PFC).  Since that time, I have encouraged students with a broad spectrum of business opportunities (not just science) to enter. I’ve yet to miss a year and have mentored my fair share of winners.

In the last 20 years, the PFC has seen solutions presented for almost every problem imaginable. On the science side, there have been cures and diagnostics for cancer and all sorts of diseases and medical conditions; environmentally friendly technologies, biofuels and materials; remedies for hangovers; and high-tech innovations like holographic buttons for operating lifts and doors (a PFC winner in 2002).

For the industry-related entries, we have seen an app for every occasion including managing hospitals and health care; taxis and transport; social and study life on campus; and in more recent years, apps incorporating science to develop tools that allow people to monitor their safety, health, fitness, and medication. Some of the proposed startups have gone on to become viable businesses, such as Conscious Step (www.consciousstep.com), a social enterprise that sells handsome socks to help solve problems in the third world. The team won the PFC in 2013 and have shown the perseverance that Dr Peter Farrell will tell you is critical for success.  

Many of the competitors have gone on to become entrepreneurs, and all have learnt the role of entrepreneurship in innovation, which is no doubt benefitting their careers. The PFC educational experience provides insight into how a business starts and grows and an understanding of all the working parts that are needed to make it a success, which is a great tool not only for the entrepreneur but for all the “want to be” high-performing entrepreneurially minded employees. It is these UNSW/PFC alumni that are helping and will continue to help UNSW maintain its claim on the mantle of the premier Australian university for entrepreneurship.

As an educator, and career-long practising commercialisation-focused scientist (have a look at www.continualg.com), the biggest thrill for me is seeing science students participating and often succeeding in the PFC. When I first meet these students, most cannot relate to business, or commercialisation. They are studying science because it interests them, driven by curiosity, not financial gain. For most, their vision post-graduation is to get a job in a lab, wear a white coat, and do some experiments. In my courses and programs, they are shown how scientists and scientific discovery can help solve problems that make the world a better place and if they are to succeed in these endeavours they are also going to have to enter, compete and thrive in the business world.

The PFC finals night, with its wonderful pomp and ceremony, can be overwhelming for winners and non-winners alike. They often cannot believe how valued and appreciated they are by the University, the business world, and occasionally politicians; that they are being formally acknowledged for their high-level understanding and communication of a commercial opportunity.  

Specifically, for the science students’ teams, this outstanding dreamlike experience is one they would have never imagined possible when they first arrived at UNSW; that they would receive these accolades, let alone gain the self-belief that they could actually launch a business. When they realise this at finals night, it suddenly dawns on them that when they leave UNSW the world is their oyster. What better value could a competition ever hope to achieve.

Associate Professor Wallace Bridge is Biotechnology Programs Director, School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, Faculty of Science, UNSW Sydney.