Challenges presented by the contemporary world require researchers to acquire entrepreneurial skills and build bridges between academia and business. Startup co-founder Paweł Gora shares his experience with initiatives that support researchers in developing an entrepreneurial spirit and provide guidance on implementing best practices.
We are living in challenging times. We are observing the automation of many industrial and business processes and an unprecedented development of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and quantum computing. At the same time, our society is facing crises like the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and poverty. We are witnessing the truth behind a well-known quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity”.
The emergence of new technologies gives rise to new opportunities to address challenges that have not been solved for many years. However, new technologies are usually difficult to develop and require investment and great scientific knowledge and skills. While this means great opportunities for scientists who possess specialised competences, implementing new technologies in the real world also requires entrepreneurial and business skills. It is therefore essential to enable academics to acquire such skills to develop their businesses, which in the end might be extremely beneficial to society. It is worth noting that there are already dedicated programs and initiatives addressed to researchers and it is important to share good practices on how these programs can be implemented.
Regional and national programs
Universities, for example, may organise incubation and acceleration programs addressed to scientists or match-making events. In 2017, I was invited to be a mentor in Match IT, a project organised by the University of Warsaw. Its aim was to connect students having business ideas for startups with IT students having great engineering skills. First, the business ideas were presented and then students were asked to form teams based on their interests and preferences. The teams had three days to work together on selected ideas under the supervision of mentors. The event ended with a pitching session, but some projects were developed further. One of the ideas presented was related to transportation - vanpooling services – and had great potential in reducing traffic congestion and contributing to the green transition. I continued mentoring this project after the event and eventually it turned into the startup Broomee Technologies. We are working to improve transport in cities by complementing public transport in underserved urban and suburban regions with on-demand buses, requested via mobile apps, without fixed routes, timetables or stations.
The advantage of national and regional entrepreneurship programs is that they can often be implemented quickly and with relatively low costs and human effort. They can also be adjusted to the needs and reality of the local market and ecosystem. Also, in the case of universities, it is possible to organise academic courses, as well as special programs for ambitious students, and it is easier to ensure their long-term implementation.
Similar programs are also being organised at the international level, for example within the European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT). Through the University of Warsaw, I participated in an EIT Food program event aimed at supporting innovations in the food sector. During a match-making event, I met future partners from the Colruyt Group, the University of Cambridge and Technion. Later, we prepared a research proposal and received funding for the “GLAD” (Green LAst-mile Delivery) project, which is on its way to forming another startup.
The advantage of the international programs is that it is possible to meet experts and entrepreneurs from other countries. This leads to different perspectives and more diverse feedback – which means thinking globally, also about potential new markets and connections.
One should keep in mind that such programs provide an opportunity to develop a successful business; they are not a promise of success. In order to achieve success, the young researchers and entrepreneurs must work very hard, have an open mind, think critically, be ready to give up or pivot, and take advantage of encountered opportunities. Entrepreneurship is demanding and risky. It requires much patience as many ideas, especially the most creative and innovative, fail or need a long time to develop. Therefore, it is key to be self-sufficient and self-confident, but it is also good to take advantage of available initiatives supporting entrepreneurship and innovations as they often provide breakthrough opportunities.
So, how can we improve the existing initiatives or develop better programs supporting entrepreneurship? It is important that startups developing innovative ideas are able to seek and validate a scalable business model. Therefore, it is natural to funnel efforts in different directions to look for better business opportunities. This requires flexibility. Some existing programs are not adaptable enough to meet such needs as they require precise plans and timing for development. As a consequence, time, effort and funds are wasted. Instead, it would be best to provide flexibility during the product development.
Another important aspect is bureaucracy: too many and too strict reporting obligations may consume the valuable time of innovators, discouraging them from participating in such programs. Again, flexibility is needed. Finally, some programs have industrial partners, and startups receive funding only when they focus on specific open problems. However, startups usually do not have an opportunity to learn about such problems in advance or they may work on problems for which there is no market need. Instead, industrial partners should work closely with startups to identify the fittest open problems. Alternatively, companies could submit their open problems to a publicly available platform so that startups searching for scalable business models for their solutions can find a match. A prototype of such a platform is currently being developed at the University of Warsaw.
The author participated in the workshop on young entrepreneurship co-organised by EUA and the European Commission on 9 June 2021. In this event, young entrepreneurs from EUA member universities shared their insights on how to shape European research and innovation policy to accelerate the green transition.
“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.
All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.