I was an entrepreneur before it was cool. Before being an innovator or agile was a thing. I was an entrepreneur when it was called owning your own business. Being self-employed.
Now, with all this talk of entrepreneurship, innovation and being agile many people are keen to take advantage of the government incentives to turn their idea into reality. As a PhD student or researcher you may well have ideas too. Probably many. Particularly if you work with an industry partner. You might have even developed something for or in collaboration with them. Then again, you may just be interested in leaving academia and wondering how to make use of your research findings or training in your career. And that that career might have an entrepreneurial component. Then again, none of this might be of any relevance. But – as a researcher you essentially run your own business. So, learning more about being an entrepreneur might help.
If that’s you – read on. If not, read on anyway. You might learn something.
*to avoid using idea, product, service I just use widget to refer to whatever it is you want to commercialise
**commercialisation and entrepreneurship mean many things to many people. Here I’m talking about anything that sees your widget used outside the original context within which it was developed. There is no implication that it needs to be sold or bought or for profit or for purpose. Just that it is used outside your lab, or group, or project. Some people might even call this knowledge transfer, knowledge translation or research impact.
Product – The entrepreneurial idea (deciding on the widget)
In order to be an entrepreneur you first need an entrepreneurial idea. Something that you will grow into an entity that will result in a good outcome. For most people, the good outcome will be money to live on. Perhaps even a large profit. For others the outcome might be a social or public good. Regardless of the intended outcome you still need a business to build. An idea to take to market. Something people will be willing to pay for – regardless of how you decide to spend the money or what price you set as the sale price. Where do these ideas exist? Well, they exist anywhere. You might have made a tool, piece of equipment or a gadget for your research. Notice I said for your research. That is, it was something you used to get a result. Not something you found or made as a consequence of your research. If this is you – your idea has already had some market testing. In so far as you (as the target audience) are using it.
If your research resulted in a finding or creation of a tool, that might be the basis of your entrepreneurial idea. For example it could be a reagent, a (validated) survey instrument or even how to work with a particular cohort.
Regardless of what it is – as mentioned above – for the remainder of this article we’ll call it your widget.
Protection – Should you use protection?
I’m not a lawyer. And this is not legal advice.
The need for protection will vary. If the widget is already in the public domain there may well be no point. It is either protected already or it is not. Either way there’s pretty much nothing to be done now.
If it is not in the public domain, you’ll need to make some tough decisions. Protection requires some kind of disclosure. For certain things – e.g. validated surveys – that might mean disclosing the survey questions. Which means it could be copied. Whereas leaving it ‘unprotected’ but building the survey and using it would require reverse engineering in order for it to be copied. And there are also some protections that naturally accrue as a result of being in the public domain (e.g. copyright). And other protections that accrue through long term non-disclosed use (e.g. trade secret).
The decision to protect – or not – will depend on many factors. Knowing your preferences and the preferences of coinventors (if there are any) as well as potential future buyers. Buyers include the end user but also include other people or companies who might want to profit from the widget. Whatever form the widget could take. If we take the survey example, buyers might want to put a diagnostic with it. Others might want to run an online version. Others might create an app.
Then – of course – there’s the preferences and requirements of the organisation you work for. Some universities might automatically own some of the IP. Similarly your industry partner might own some. Again, knowing your obligations as well as their preferences will help navigate this path smoothly.
You also need to strike a balance between getting all the IP protected and people’s preferences with acting quickly. No point being second to market with the best idea and IP.
Getting clarity on these things quickly can be tough. If there are many people involved in your widget, they may not have the same interest as you in taking it to market.
Other than legal protection (e.g. patents and copyrights) there are other ways to protect your widget. One of the best ways is to be in the market. That is get out there offering, using or selling your widget. In the past, that might have been through having a good location to base yourself from. That idea still holds true today, but now location refers to online not real life. Thus, better forms of protection might be the domain name widget.com or .com.au or perhaps even .edu or edu.au.
In all of this bear in mind factors such as :
- Cost of protection
- Cost of no protection
- How your widget could be legally replicated by potential competitors
- How you could enforce your protection rights
- If protection will add value to your widget (especially in the eyes of potential investors or buyers)
Package – Packaging your widget
You’ve got your widget. It’s protected as best you can. Now, how do you package it? The better question to ask is how do clients want to buy it? More often than not we set ourselves up based on how we want to sell our widget. Not on how our clients want to buy it. As a result we have widgets that look awesome to sell, but no one buys.
Therefore, in order to know how to package your widget you need to know how your potential clients buy. That means you’ll need to do some market research. As a researcher this should be easy for you. Think of it as having three stages or phases.
Who’d buy your research skills?
I’m not sure. But the only way to
find out is to let people know you
exist and that you have certain skills.
Phase 1 – Literature review
In this phase you’re searching the literature (largely websites, but also social media and industry reports) to determine how your potential clients buy or consume things similar to your widget. In this phase you’ll need to note things like add-on widgets as well as price and timing (when do they buy). Volume is also worth considering. At the end of the literature review you should have a pretty good feel for how you want to package your widget.
Phase 2 – Interview or discuss the idea with potential clients
This can be hard for all people (not just researchers) to do. You need to arrange meetings with potential clients and ask them how they’d like to buy your widget. Your personal experience creating the widget will help guide the questions as will your literature review findings. For all interviews it’s important to come prepared. Have questions ready to go. If it’s a coffee make sure you pay. Or at least offer to pay when the bill arrives. But don’t ask to have coffee then grill them about your widget. Be clean and let them know you’re doing market research.
Phase 3 – Final report
Like any piece of research you’ll need to synthesise your findings into a final report. Although in this case it will be a decision about how you package and price your widget. And it might not be final. The important part is that you know what you are selling. It’s price. And how your clients are buying.
Purchaser – The purchaser
Finally, you’ll need to understand who your market is. Who is buying your widget as well as who is using it? In many cases the two are different. You might also find there is a decision maker as well. Someone who decides that the purchase will be made. So your market could be:
- The decision maker – someone who decides the widget needs to be purchased. If your widget is a customer survey (e.g. for hospital patients) it could be the business owner wanting to understand their customers.
- The purchaser – someone who decides on what is to be purchased. They might’ve been given the authority by a more senior person. In the example above they could be the procurement office. Or, they could be the area manager responsible for the staff dealing with the clients being surveyed. These people are evaluating your widget against all the other widgets out there. They may or may not be analysing the data.
- The user – the person using your widget. In the example I started above, that’s the health services’ client. The person completing the survey. From your perspective the survey needs to be easy for them to use. There may also be a secondary user – the health services data analyst. The one who is bringing everything together (unless you have already decided you’re doing that as part of your widget).
Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.
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