How Science PhDs embraced business thinking

Are you thinking about how to commercialise your research? Perhaps you wonder how to turn an idea into a commercial product or service? Fancy yourself as an innovator? Or just want a better understanding of business in practice? Perhaps you just want to make the world a better place?

These teaser questions were posed to attract a group of Science PhDs – from universities including Sussex, Cambridge & Durham – to come to my session at the STFC (Science & Technology Facilities Council, UK Research & Innovation) summer school 2019.

Split almost equally between making the world a better place and a more commercial learning objective, we set off working through a structured, step by step approach to creating a new business model. After all, even when making the world a better place, there are costs to cover.

Armed with flipchart paper, post-it notes, pens and my step by step exercises the students came out with flying colours – they

  1. Got an understanding of the different elements that make a new product / business / service profitable
  2. Had an experience taking a step by step approach to testing out a new business idea
  3. Explored what evidence to gather before spending time and money on solution development.

But don’t take my word for it – here is what they said…

“…I really enjoyed it and I feel like I’ve learned a lot… It was really interesting to see how building a business can be thought through in a scientific way… Very methodical that clearly laid out the steps you should take and the things you should consider… Julia’s real life business stories throughout were really good to hear and well used within the teaching… The workshop was fun and also very interactive… Was pitched very well for someone who has little or no business experience… Helps you understand the time and resources you need…Very good insider information on the real processes to actualise a new product idea…

I really enjoy working with scientific brains at these workshops: The first visible emotion is a head-scratching frustration as I ask them to imagine what value they could create for who. Uncomfortable with “making stuff up”, I re-frame this as developing hypotheses about target customers’ / users’ problems. Ah – now we are talking hypotheses – this is beginning to make sense! You can see how they visualised the “persona” of the target customer in this photo.

One of the main challenges is to pull back from a natural inclination to design features and solutions; instead they are to think through where the biggest risks are in their hypotheses. And then it hits – ah – we are going to design some experiments where we are going to gather evidence to test out these hypotheses. We are seriously talking the same language now – this language of creating business models has come from the science world! And putting those personas at the heart of the innovation challenge, rather than solutions, we work out how to find them and how to ask the right questions to get at the evidence we need to support our hypotheses.

Really interesting here was a discussion that starts with “we are students, we don’t know anyone!” As we worked through each team’s persona we surprised ourselves thinking through the contacts that each had through the university itself – from tutors to innovation centres; from societies through to local businesses who offer placements; let alone friends of friends / friends of family members. Even a cold call to find the right contact, explaining that “I am a PhD at Sussex University and I am looking in to a solution for people who run environmental services at the local council” is going to carry a lot of weight – these students are seriously clever and have so much to offer!

In this photo you will see 3 main artefacts: (1). A persona, (2). A value proposition statement for those personas and (3). A business model canvas. So that last exercise of the day is to map up what a sustainable, repeatable business model could look like using this great tool designed by Strategyser. The exercises running up to this are designed to get the team clear on the first few boxes of the canvas which are all about desirability – thinking through whose problem you can solve. So it all comes together in a bigger picture at the end of a rather lovely day!

Thanks to Seb Oliver and Louise Winters for the invite to Sussex and I look forward to the next time!

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